(Roughly) Daily

“Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.”*…

With a tip of the hat to James Burke

European civilization is built on ham and cheese, which allowed protein to be stored throughout the icy winters.

Without this, urban societies in most of central Europe would simply not have been possible.

This is also why we have hardback books. Here’s why…

Ham, cheese, snails, underwear, Jesus, spectacles– the ingredients in the birth of the book as we know it: a wonderful thread from the wonderful Incunabula (@incunabula) TotH to @inevernu.

* James Burke, Connections

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As we ponder precedents, we might send inventive birthday greetings to Marvin P. Middlemark; he was born on this date in 1919.

Old Westbury tinkerer Marvin Middlemark invented the “rabbit ears” TV antenna in 1953, helping millions of Americans get the fuzz, or some of it, out of their pre-cable television reception. Though not completely original – the design was based on the dipole antenna invented by Heinrich Hertz in 1886 – the update made Middlemark a wealthy man.

Middlemark was awarded 62 patents in his lifetime, but his other inventions, including a water-powered potato peeler and a technique for resuscitating gone-soft tennis balls, didn’t muster the same commercial appeal. He sold his antenna company, All Channel Products Corp., in the mid-1960s, parked the proceeds in municipal bonds, and retired to his wooded 12-acre estate, where he kept miniature horses, collected stained glass windows and housed a pet chimpanzee named Josie who liked to finish unwary guests’ drinks.

Middlemark died in 1989, leaving behind a $5 million fortune and, inexplicably, 1,000 pairs of woolen gloves. His son, second wife and her son from another marriage fought over the will for years. Highlights: Planted drugs and weapons, death threats and at least one choking attempt. And all that was by the widow. The stepson, a prominent North Hempstead political operative, pleaded guilty to perjury and was sentenced to two years in jail.

“Every lawyer has read ‘Bleak House,’ ” Neal Johnston, an attorney for Middlemark’s son said at the time. “This is as close as I’ve come to living it.”…

Long Island Press

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“Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you. (Or what you wish the past had done for you.)”*…

A love letter to infrastructure…

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure: “Care At Scale,” from Debbie Chachra (@debcha), via the indispensable Exponential View (@ExponentialView). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “Infrastructure is much more important than architecture“; and resonantly, “Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames.”

* Danny Hillis’ “Golden Rule of Time,” as quoted by Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline

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As we build foundations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that the first balloon used for meteorologic research in the U.S. was released near St. Louis, Missouri. The balloon carried instruments that measured barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, that returned to Earth when the balloon burst.

The first weather balloon was launched in France in 1892. Prior to using balloons, the U.S. used kites tethered by piano wire– the downsides being the limited distance kites could ascend (less than 2 miles), the inability to use them if the wind was too light or too strong, and potential for the kites to break away.

Since this first launch, millions of weather balloons have been launched by the National Weather Service and its predecessor organizations.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 15, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Food is an important part of a balanced diet”*…

In your quest to eat right, are you an a nutritionist or an essentialist?

Nutrition science began with the chemical description of proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the 19th century. The field didn’t seem to hold much medical import; the research was mostly aimed at cheaply feeding poor and institutionalised people well enough to keep them from rioting. Germ theory, on the other hand, was new and revolutionary medical science, and microbiologists such as Louis Pasteur were demonstrating that one disease after another, from cholera to malaria to leprosy, was caused by microbes. But at the turn of the 20th century, nutrition science suddenly arrived as a major part of our understanding of human health…

In 1911, the Polish chemist Casimir Funk announced that he’d isolated the beriberi-preventing chemical, which he thought to be a molecule containing an amine group, and named it ‘vitamine’ – a vital amine. The next year, Funk published an ambitious paper and book arguing that not only beriberi but three other human diseases – scurvy, pellagra and rickets – were each caused by a lack of a particular vitamin. Within a few months, the English researcher Frederick Hopkins published the results of a series of experiments in which he fed animals diets based on pure proteins, carbohydrates and fats, after which they developed various ailments. He posited that the simplified diets lacked some ‘accessory food factors’ important for health. Those factors and many others were discovered over the next three decades, and researchers showed how these vitamins were critical to the function of practically every part of the body. Ten of those scientists, including Eijkman and Hopkins, won Nobel prizes. At the same time that physicists laid out the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, describing fundamental laws that governed the Universe on its smallest and largest scales, chemists discovered the laws that seemed to govern the science of nutrition.

[… which, over the last 100 years, has exploded…]

[Gyorgy Scrinis, a professor of food politics and policy at the University of Melbourne] argues that the field of nutrition science is under the sway of an ideology he dubbed ‘nutritionism’, a mode of thinking about food that makes a number of erroneous assumptions: it reduces foods to quantified collections of nutrients, pulls foods out of the context of diets and lifestyles, presumes that biomarkers such as body-mass index are accurate indicators of health, overestimates scientists’ understanding of the relationship between nutrients and health, and falls for corporations’ claims that the nutrients they sprinkle into heavily processed junk foods make them healthful. These errors lead us toward food that is processed to optimise its palatability, convenience and nutrient profile, drawing us away from the whole foods that Scrinis says we should be eating. He says the history of margarine provides a tour of the perils of nutritionism: it was first adopted as a cheaper alternative to butter, then promoted as a health food when saturated fat became a nutritional bugbear, later castigated as a nutritional villain riddled with trans fats, and recently reformulated without trans fats, using new processes such as interesterification. That has succeeded in making margarine look better, according to nutritionism’s current trends, but is another kind of ultra-processing that’s likely to diminish the quality of food….

While Scrinis cites the growing body of scientific research implicating modern food processing, he also supports his critique of nutritionism with appeals to intuition. ‘This idea that ultra-processed foods are degraded – we’ve always known this,’ he says. ‘Our senses tell us whole foods are wholesome. People know this intuitively. The best foods in terms of cuisine are made from whole foods, not McDonald’s. It’s common sense.’

Even as nutritionism pushes us to believe that the latest nutrition research reveals something important about food, we also hold on to a conflicting concept: the idea that natural foods are better for us in ways that don’t always show up in scientific studies – that whole foods contain an inherent essence that is despoiled by our harsh modern processing techniques. ‘It’s a general attitude that you can break foods down that is the problem,’ says Scrinis. ‘It’s showing no respect for the food itself.’ This idea of respecting food reveals an underlying perspective that is essentialist, which, in philosophy, is the Platonic view that certain eternal and universal characteristics are essential to identity. Science is usually thought of as the antithesis of our atavistic intuitions, yet nutrition science has contained an essentialist view of nutrition for almost a century.

Most of us carry both ideologies, essentialism and nutritionism, in our minds, pulling us in different directions, complicating how we make decisions about what to eat. This tension is also visible in nutrition. Many government public health agencies give precise recommendations, based on a century of hard research, for the amounts of every nutrient we need to keep us healthy. They also insist that whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are the best ways to get those nutrients. But if you accept the nutrient recommendations, why assume that whole foods are a better way of getting those nutrients than, say, a powdered mix that is objectively superior in terms of cost, convenience and greenhouse emissions? What’s more, powdered mixes make it far easier for people to know exactly what they’re eating, which addresses one problem that constantly vexes nutritionists.

This kind of reflexive preference for natural foods can sometimes blind us to the implications of science. Even as research piles up implicating, for instance, excessive sugar as a particular problem in modern diets, most nutrition authorities refuse to endorse artificial sweeteners as a way to decrease our sugar consumption. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time with artificial sweeteners, and I cannot find any solid evidence there’s anything wrong with including them in your diet,’ says Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post columnist who has been writing about nutrition for more than 20 years. She says there’s some evidence that low-calorie sweeteners help some people lose weight, but you won’t hear that from nutrition authorities, who consistently minimise the positives while focusing on potential downsides that have not been well-established by research, such as worries that they cause cancer or scramble the gut microbiome. Why the determined opposition? ‘Because artificial sweeteners check lots of the boxes of the things that wholesome eaters avoid. It’s a chemical that’s manufactured in a plant. It’s created by the big companies that are selling the rest of the food in our diet, a lot of which is junk.’ Haspel says that nutritionists’ attitude to low-calorie sweeteners is ‘puritanical, it’s holier-than-thou, and it’s breathtakingly condescending’. The puritanical response reflects the purity of essentialism: foods that are not ‘natural’ are not welcome in the diets of right-thinking, healthy-eating people…

Our arguments over food are so polarised because they are not only about evidence: they are about values. Our choice of what we put inside us physically represents what we want inside ourselves spiritually, and that varies so much from person to person. Hearn uses food, much of it from a blender, to hack his body and keep him well-fuelled between business meetings. Scrinis looks forward to spending time in his kitchen, tinkering with new varieties of sourdough packed with sprouted grains and seeds. Haspel lives in Cape Cod, where she grows oysters, raises chickens, and hunts deer for venison – and also drinks diet soda and uses sucralose in her smoothies and oatmeal, to help keep her weight down.

Nutritionism and essentialism provide comfortingly clear perspectives about what makes food healthful. But an open-minded look at the evidence suggests that many of the most hotly debated questions about nutrition are impossible to answer with the information we have, maybe with the information we will ever have in the foreseeable future. If we isolate nutrients and eat them in different forms than they naturally come in, how will they affect us? Can processed foods be made in ways to approach or even surpass the healthfulness of natural whole foods?…

Human bodies are so fascinating in part because they are so variable and malleable. Beyond some important universals, such as the vitamins discovered a century ago, different people’s bodies work differently, because of their genes, behaviours and environments. The food we eat today changes the way our bodies work tomorrow, making yesterday’s guidance out of date. There are too many variables and too few ways to control them…

Maybe the reason that diet is so difficult to optimise is that there is no optimal diet. We are enormously flexible omnivores who can live healthily on varied diets, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors or modern people filling shopping carts at globally sourced supermarkets, yet we can also live on specialised diets, like traditional Inuits who mostly ate a small range of Arctic animals or subsistence farmers who ate little besides a few grains they grew. Aaron Carroll, a physician in Indiana and a columnist at The New York Times, argues that people spend far too much time worrying about eating the wrong things. ‘The “dangers” from these things are so very small that, if they bring you enough happiness, that likely outweighs the downsides,’ he said in 2018. ‘So much of our food discussions are moralising and fear-inducing. Food isn’t poison, and this is pretty much the healthiest people have even been in the history of mankind. Food isn’t killing us.’

Food is a vehicle for ideologies such as nutritionism and essentialism, for deeply held desires such as connecting with nature and engineering a better future. We argue so passionately about food because we are not just looking for health – we’re looking for meaning. Maybe, if meals help provide a sense of meaning for your life, that is the healthiest thing you can hope for.

Vitamins or whole foods? high-fat or low-fat? sugar or sweetener?… Will we ever get a clear idea about what we should eat? “The Food Wars,” from Amos Zeeberg (@settostun)

[image above: source]

* Fran Lebowitz

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As we scale the food pyramid, we might send birthday greetings in oyster sauce to Joyce Chen; she was born on this date in 1917.  A chef, restauranteur, author, television personality, and entrepreneur, she parlayed a successful Cambridge, MA restaurant (where she’s credited with creating the “all you can eat Chinese buffet” to perk up slow Tuesdays and Wednesdays) into a collection of restaurants, a cooking school, a series of cookbooks, and a PBS series (shot on the same set as Julia Child’s show).  She is credited with popularizing northern-style Chinese cuisine in America.  Chen was honored in 2014 (along with Julia Child) as one of the five chefs featured on a series of U.S. postage stamps.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 14, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Teach Your Children”*…

Values around the world, graphed…

What’s more important for a child to be encouraged to learn: imagination, hard work or both?

And what do you value the most: family, work, friends, leisure, religion or politics?

These are questions asked by the World Values Survey, “a large non-commercial, cross-national, longitudinal investigation of human beliefs and values.” The comparative social survey polled 1,000-3,000 people in countries around the globe to get a consensus on where they stood on varying principles and ideals.

Anders Sundell, a political scientist at University of Gothenburg, scoured through the data and put the results on a line graph, with each country represented by a dot.

Many Nordic countries said they wanted to encourage children to learn imagination the most, with Sweden being the country to list hard work as the least important attribute. Guatemala and South Korea were the countries that overwhelmingly valued both imagination and hard work. Zimbabwe was the country that listed imagination as the least important quality.

Sundell also mapped the countries around the globe that valued family, work, friends, religion, leisure and politics the highest, e.g.:

Dive more deeply into the data at “The Countries That Value Family, Work, Friends, Leisure, Religion And Politics The Most, Visualized.”

Crosby, Stills & Nash (written by Graham Nash)

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As we compare cultures, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that Henry Hale Bliss, a 69-year-old local real estate dealer, was alighting from a south bound 8th Avenue trolley car when an electric-powered taxicab (Automobile No. 43) struck him. Bliss hit the pavement, crushing his head and chest. He was taken by ambulance to Roosevelt Hospital; but upon arrival the house surgeon, Dr. Marny, said his injuries were too severe to survive, and Bliss died from his sustained injuries the next morning… becoming the first recorded instance of a person being killed in a motor vehicle collision in the U. S.

Bliss in 1873 [source]

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…'”*…

It’s that time again: the IgNobel Prizes for 2021 have been awarded!

An experiment that hung rhinoceroses upside down to see what effect it had on the animals has been awarded one of this year’s Ig Nobel prizes.

Other recipients included teams that studied the bacteria in chewing gum stuck to pavements, and how to control cockroaches on submarines.

The ceremony couldn’t take place at its usual home of Harvard University in the US because of Covid restrictions. All the fun occurred online instead.

The science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, says its Ig Nobel awards should first make you laugh but then make you think.

And the rhino study, which this year wins the award for transportation research, does exactly this. What could seem more daft than hanging 12 rhinos upside down for 10 minutes?

But wildlife veterinarian Robin Radcliffe, from Cornell University, and colleagues did exactly this in Namibia because they wanted to know if the health of the animals might be compromised when slung by their legs beneath a helicopter. It’s an activity that increasingly has been used in African conservation work to shift rhinos between areas of fragmented habitat.

However, no-one had done the basic investigation to check that the tranquillised animals’ heart and lung function coped with upside-down flying, said Robin. He told BBC News: “Namibia was the first country to take a step back and say, ‘hey, let’s study this and figure out, you know, is this a safe thing to do for rhinos?”

As has become customary with the Ig Nobels, the prizes on the night were handed out by real Nobel laureates, including Frances Arnold (chemistry, 2018), Carl Weiman (physics, 2001), and Eric Maskin (economics, 2007).

The winners got a trophy they had to assemble themselves from a PDF print-out and a cash prize in the form of a counterfeit 10 trillion dollar Zimbabwean banknote…

For more on the very real importance of the rhino research, and a complete list of other winners, e.g.,

Biology Prize: Susanne Schötz, for analysing variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat-human communication.

… see “Upside-down rhino research wins Ig Nobel Prize.

* Isaac Asimov

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As we take our knowledge where we find it, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that president John F. Kennedy gave what has become known as the “space speech.” Officially titled “the Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort,” it characterized space as a new frontier, in an attempt to win support for the Apollo program, the national effort to land a man on the Moon.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

The full text of his speech (and video clips) are here.

Kennedy speaking at Rice

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 12, 2021 at 1:00 am

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