A few rabbits can’t do any harm

June 26, 2011

The action in TC Boyle’s latest novel, When The Killing’s Done takes place on the Channel Islands – not Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark et al, but a chain of eight islands located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California. The islands host some 2,000 animal and plant species, including many that can only be found there. Five of the islands are part of the Channel Islands National Park. In Boyle’s tale the islands are the battleground for a conservationist, Alma Takesue, whose mission is to protect endangered biotic communities and Dave LaJoy, an animal rights fanatic, who violently opposes the idea that humans have the right to choose which animals will live or die. They come into conflict over the best way to protect the natural environment of two Channel Islands – Anacapa and Santa Cruz. The title comes from a quote by LaJoy: “I’ll be civil when the killing’s done.” The killing refers to the eradication of invasive species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy, which aim to return the ecosystems of the islands to their original state,

The history of human-animal interaction is one that features prominently in Boyle’s oeuvre. He has a short story, A Bird in the Hand, about Eugene Schiefflin, who planned to introduce every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare into the New World.* The part about Shakespeare may not actually be true, but whatever his motivation his plan  was to have far-reaching effects. Schieffelin belonged to the American Acclimatization Society, which sought to promote the exchange of plants and animals from one part of the world to another. These societies were very prevalent in the 19th century. With what we know now Schieffelin’s actions seem naïve and even foolish. But at the time it was seen as good practice.  

In March 1890 he released 60 starlings into New York City’s Central Park; the following year he turned loose another 60. Schieffelin had imported the birds from England. Scientists estimate that the United Statesis home to more than 200 million of their descendants. They are now considered an invasive species in the USA, and they have wrought havoc on public buildings as well as agriculture. Fortunately, his attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks were less successful. On the 100th anniversary the New York Times had this to say about Schieffelin:

Skylarks and song thrushes failed to thrive, but the enormity of his success with starlings continues to haunt us. This centennial year is worth observing as an object lesson in how even noble intentions can lead to disaster when humanity meddles with nature. Today the starling is ubiquitous, with its purple and green iridescent plumage and its rasping, insistent call. It has distinguished itself as one of the costliest and most noxious birds on our continent. Roosting in hordes of up to a million, starlings can devour vast stores of seed and fruit, offsetting whatever benefit they confer by eating insects. In a single day, a cloud of omnivorous starlings can gobble up 20 tons of potatoes.

If there is one country that has suffered from acclimatization, that must surely be Australia. In Down Under Bill Bryson tells this story. Thomas Austin brought 24 rabbits to Australia in 1859. He was upbeat about the experiment:

The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” Rarely has a human prediction proved more so wrong. Less than a hundred years later there were more than one billion rabbits, the fastest spread of mammals ever recorded. Only with the introduction in 1950 of myxomatosis were they able to control the rabbit population. .Harmless to humans and other animals, it had a mortality rate of 99.9%.  However, the small number of rabbits that survived then bred a genetic resistance to the disease. So the cycle started once again. Scientists don’t know the precise numbers, but there are now hundreds of millions of rabbits

Now, you would think that people might have learned a lesson from Austin’s blunder, but alas no. Just as the rabbits were doing their thing, other species of animals were being introduced in great numbers. They were introduced for different reasons – for sport, by accident, and sometimes just to spice things up a little, as Australia was seen as biologically deficient. And why stop with British or European animals? They could create an African veldt in Australia, with giraffes, springboks, and buffaloes. They wanted herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain. In 1862 Sir Henry Barkly, governor ofVictoria, called for the introduction of monkeys into the colony’s forests “for the amusement of wayfarers, whom their gambols would delight.” Barkly’s replacement as governor, Sir Charles Darling, rejected that idea – only to suggest boa constrictors instead. Neither of these madcap schemes came to fruition but scores of others did. Foxes, camels, donkeys, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, foxes and cats have changed Australia for ever. There are so many introduced species, that the red kangaroo is now only the thirteenth largest animal in the country. About 130 mammals in Australia are threatened. Sixteen have gone extinct—more than in any other continent. And I haven’t even mentioned the effects on flora.

Islands’ closed ecosystems are especially interesting because any animals arriving or introduced will have unforeseen consequences. Island fauna has some particular characteristics. The first of these is known as island tameness, a tendency of such animals to lose their wariness of potential predators. They lose those defensive behaviours and adaptions that allow them to deal with new predators. Zebras, on the other hand, have to be extremely wary to have a chance of surviving on the savannah. Island animals can be extremely vulnerable when humans introduce predators, such as pigs, dogs, rats or cats, intentionally or otherwise. The second one is Island gigantism. This is a biological phenomenon in which the size of animals isolated on an island increases dramatically in comparison to their mainland relatives. Large mammalian carnivores are not present, allowing their ecological niches to be filled by birds or reptiles, which can then grow to larger-than-normal size. Being small can be invaluable for herbivores to escape or hide from predators. In the absence of such predators, these birds and reptiles tend to grow larger

Dodos are a paradigmatic example of what happens when these animals are exposed to new dangers. This large flightless bird, related to the pigeon, was living happily on the island of Mauritius. We need to remember that flight is very expensive; flying uses up a lot of calories. Birds fly to escape enemies. But the dodo didn’t have any enemies and had lost the ability to fly. That left it defenceless when humans first set foot on the island. You have to put yourself in the shoes of those sailors. They had been on navy rations for months and suddenly they saw these huge, fat, delicious pigeons. They were just asking to be roasted. The naïve dodo didn’t stand a chance and now they have become fodder for idiomatic expressions.

In When The Killing’s Done Boyle also tells us about the invasion of Guam by the brown tree snake. They are believed to have arrived around the time of World War II. They arrived on the undercarriages of planes. InIndonesia they had lived in relative equilibrium with other species. In Guam this balance did not exist and now they have taken over the island, wiping out most of the native forest vertebrate species. They have also affected human life. They cause thousands of power cuts and have been found biting and/or coiled around infants and small children in their beds. Guam is a major Pacific transportation hub and there is a very real danger that these snakes could be introduced inadvertently to other Pacific islands. To counter this risk, trained dogs are used to search, locate, and remove brown tree snakes before military and commercial cargo and transportation vessels leave the island.  

In When The Killing’s Done Takesue and Dave LaJoy represent two starkly contrasting visions of we deal with nature. The islands are vital to Alma. Indeed, she wouldn’t be alive without them; they’re what saved her grandmother from drowning at sea when she was shipwrecked in 1946. She plans to exterminate the two animals that threaten “her” islands – rats and feral pigs. The former arrived on Anacapa after a shipwreck; the latter were originally imported to Santa Cruz as domestic farm animals in the 1850s. The pigs cannot be returned to the mainland because their long isolation would make them potential carriers of disease. Dave LaJoy is a successful businessman who leads the FPA, an animal-rights activist group which thinks that the animals have to be saved from people like Alma, who he accuses of playing God. But he also tries to manipulate nature introducing animals to the islands.

Boyle’s book doesn’t offer any easy solutions – the problem isn’t black and white. In fact I may have been more confused by the end. Are we responsible for re-balancing these eco systems? Or, are we doing more harm when we try to manipulate the fragile balance of the natural world? Nature is not a paradise but a highly complex terrain in which animals struggle for survival in an ecosystem radically altered by our impact. One of the characters in the books has a question: What if we just left everything alone like the world was before us—like God made it. Wouldn’t that be easier?”

However, we can’t go back. It’s just not possible to return the earth to its previous pristine state. It was said that a squirrel could cross Englandwithout touching the ground. But with nearly six billion people on our planet nature has been transformed forever. I detect a certain misanthropy in many environmentalists. They seem to want to portray civilisation itself as a force for ecological destruction. Humans are seen as an invasive species or even a virus. Ty Tierwater, protagonist of one of Boyle’s earlier novels, A Friend of the Earth, proclaims: “To be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people.”


*Those of you interested in which birds appeared in Shakespeare should try The Birds of Shakespeare, published in 1916 by the Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie. They are, in alphabetical order: Blackbird, Bunting, Buzzard, Chough, Cock, Cormorant, Crow, Cuckoo, Dive-dapper, Dove and Pigeon, Duck, Eagle, Falcon and Sparrowhawk, Finch, Goose, Hedge Sparrow, House Martin, Jackdaw, Jay, Kite, Lapwing, Lark, Loon, Magpie, Nightingale, Osprey, Ostrich, Owl, Parrot, Partridge, Peacock, Pelican, Pheasant, Quail, Raven, Robin, Snipe, Sparrow, Starling, Swallow, Swan, Thrush, Turkey, Vulture, Wagtail, Woodcock and the Wren.

QI animal trivia

June 26, 2011

This selection is taken from The Book of Animal Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong:


Ants boggle the mind. In the jungles where three-quarters of them live, they teem 800 to the square yard, 2.4 billion to the square mile, and collectively weigh four times more than all the neighbouring mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians put together. The 12,000 named ant species come in all shapes and sizes: a colony of the smallest could live happily inside the brain-case of the largest. As with bees and termites, their success flows from their social organization, but there is nothing remotely cuddly about ants: they are the storm troopers of the insect world, their ruthlessly efficient colonies operating like a single superorganism

Polar bears aren’t white. Their skin is black, and their fur is translucent–their apparent whiteness is the result of light refracted from the clear strands.

Beavers have a greater impact on their surroundings than any creature other than humans. They build instinctively: put a young beaver in a cage and even without trees or running water, it still mimes the process of building a dam. They can chop down a tree with a six-inch diameter in less than an hour. Some scientists now think the disappearance of the Pennine forests and the creation of the Fens were due to the beavers that lived in Britain until the early thirteenth century (the town of Beverly in York-shire is named after them).

The most sophisticated form of communication other than human language is the work not of an ape but an insect. Honey-bees can tell one another the quality, distance, and precise location of a food source by a complex sequence of movements and vibrations called the waggle dance. And, unlike most of the dolphin or primate languages, we can actually understand what the bees are saying to each other (each waggle, for example, represents about 150 feet from the hive). The discovery of this in 1945 was enough to earn Karl von Frisch the only Nobel Prize ever awarded for the study of animal behaviour. More recent research has filled out the picture. Bees have a sense of time; being able to see in the ultraviolet range makes them more attracted to some flower colours and textures than others; they can learn by experience. They can even recognize human faces. Given that many humans struggle with this once they’ve turned forty, it seems utterly remarkable in creatures whose brain is the size of a pinhead. Yet bees who are rewarded with nectar when shown photographs of some faces, and not when shown others, quickly learn to tell the difference. Not that we should read too much into this. Bees don’t think in a meaningful way. There’s no small talk; they only ever communicate on two subjects: food and where they should set up the next hive. The faces in the experiment were clearly functioning as rather odd-looking flowers, not as people they wanted to get to know socially. Equally, a single bee, however smart, is severely limited in its appeal as a pet, when separated from its hive.

If diversity and adaptability are the measuring stick for success, then beetles are the most successful animals on the planet. There are 350,000 known species, with up to 8 million more out there waiting for names: new species are being discovered at an aver-age rate of one an hour. If you lined up all animal and plant species in a row, every fifth species would be a beetle. There are about 750,000,000,000,000,000 individual beetles going about their business right now.

Unlike most animals, none of the words for “butterfly” in European languages resemble one another: it is schmetterling in German; papillon in French; mariposa in Spanish; farfalla in Italian; borboleta in Portuguese; and vlinder in Dutch.

Cow farts are not destroying the world; unfortunately cow burps are. An average cow burps 600 pints of methane a day, and this is responsible for 4 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and a third of the U.K.’s. Livestock farming in general creates 18 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases—more than all the cars and other forms of transport on earth. Cows produce one pound of methane for every two pounds of meat they yield. Work is under way to produce a methane-reducing pill the size of a man’s fist, called a bolus, which would dissolve inside the cow over several months. Even so, cattle farming is costly. To make one pound of beef requires thirteen hundred square feet of land, six times as much as to produce the equivalent weight in eggs and forty times what it takes to grow a pound of spuds.

Today, there are nearly four hundred breeds of domestic dog but all belong to the same species: Canis familiaris. In theory, a two-pound Chihuahua only a couple of inches high can mate with a Great Dane more than three feet tall or a 150-pound Saint Bernard. The vast diversity of dogs is down to humans carefully selecting valuable inherited traits but often encouraging unusual ones such as dwarfism or lack of a tail that, in the wild, might prevent a dog surviving long enough to reproduce. Specialized hunting skills were especially sought after. Springer spaniels have the ability to “spring,” or startle, game. The dachshund’s sausage-like body enables it to pursue badgers into their burrows (“badger” is Dachs in German). Labrador retrievers were bred to retrieve fishing nets inNewfoundland. There are harehounds, elkhounds, and coonhounds; leopard dogs, kangaroo dogs, and bear dogs; there is even a sheep poodle. Poodles were originally used for duck hunting: the word comes from the German for “to splash in water.” But dogs are bred for all sorts of reasons. Louis Dobermann, a German night watchman, produced his namesake for watchdog purposes in the late 1800s. Toy varieties, such as the Pekingese, were raised in ancient China as “sleeve dogs”—kept inside the gowns of noble-women to keep them warm.

Ferrets are the only member of the weasel family to have been domesticated, and their popularity as pets is on the increase. On the face of it, this is surprising. Their scientific name, Mustela putorius furo, translates as “musk-bearing stinking thief,” although most of this infamy is inherited. Ferrets are tame European polecats (from poule chat, “poultry cat”), a creature so despised by farmers and gamekeepers that it was hunted, trapped, and gassed to near extinction across most of Britain during the nineteenth century. Also known as the foulmart or stinkmarten, the polecat was the scourge of henhouses, but also helped keep the rabbit and mouse population in check. When they were originally domesticated, more than two thou-sand years ago, it was to exploit this natural aptitude.

In Japan, foxes are sacred to the Shinto religion and “fox possession” is a recognized clinical condition. Symptoms include a craving for rice and an inability to make eye contact.

The Romans exhibited giraffes in their amphitheatres as “camelopards,” assuming they were a cross between camels and leopards.

The word tragedy comes from ancient Greek and means “goat-song.”

Gorillas are the strong, silent members of the ape family. They aren’t as vocal or as flashy with their skills as chimps, but they have better memories and often do things independently rather than simply for a reward. Koko, a female gorilla born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, has mastered more than a thousand words in sign language, and seems able to communicate complex emotions like sadness and even make jokes. She describes herself, touchingly, as “fine animal person gorilla.”

It’s often said that emperor penguins mate for life, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. While faithful for the breeding season and when the chick is being reared, at other times emperor penguins have much lower rates of fidelity than smaller species. At least 85 percent of emperor penguins cheat on their partners. They’re mostly straight, though, unlike Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo, who hit the news when they built a nest together, rejected any advances from females, and raised an egg. Silo eventually left Roy to pair up with a female named Scrappy and may well be the first documented case of an ex-gay or bisexual penguin.

Pigs are highly intelligent. Like dogs they can be easily house-broken, taught to fetch, and come to heel. Pigs can learn to dance, race, pull carts, and sniff out land mines. They can even be taught to play video games, pushing the joystick with their snouts, something that even chimps struggle to master. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “learned pigs,” dressed in natty waistcoats, amazed audiences with tricks. Pigs have even been put on trial and hanged for murder. Maybe it’s this intelligence that some people find unsettling. When a pig fixes you with its long-lashed, forward-facing eyes and sniffs you with its snout (which is two thousand times more sensitive than a human nose), a connection is made that goes well beyond the food chain.

A rat can swim for seventy-two hours nonstop. It can jump down fifty feet without injury. It can squeeze through a half-inch gap, leap three feet, climb vertical surfaces, and walk along ropes. It can survive longer than a camel without water. It will eat anything that’s edible and lots of thing that aren’t (lead sheeting, soft concrete, brick, wood, and aluminium). It reaches sexual maturity at three months. Rats have sex up to twenty times a day, and are extremely promiscuous: an in-heat female can have sex more than five hundred times with a barn-load of different males and produce twelve litters of twenty-two young each year. In short, rats are very, very hard to get rid of.

Only one in a hundred shark species attacks people. In 2005 there were just fifty-eight shark attacks reported worldwide. Only four people were killed. Wasps kill as many people in Britain every year, and jellyfish in the Philippines kill ten times as many. In the United States, both dogs and alligators kill more people than sharks. To put it another way, in an average year in New York there are sixteen hundred cases of people biting people. Sharks have far more reason to be scared of us. We kill at least seventy million a year for food (despite the fact that some shark flesh tastes of urine; both rock salmon and huss are sharks) and for their livers (which are used in haemorrhoid cream).

If spiders didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them; without them, we’d simply drown in insects. Until the late eighteenth century, we just assumed they were wingless insects, but they now have their own class, Arachnida, which contains forty thousand identified species, with as many again, waiting to be named. They were one of the earliest land animals to evolve and are predatory, territorial carnivores: put ten thousand spiders in a sealed room and you will eventually end up with a single fat spider. The mass of insects eaten by British spiders in a year outweighs theU.K.’s human population. And by “eat” we really mean drink: they dissolve their victims first.

It’s a bad idea to kill a wasp: dying wasps emit a pheromone that alerts its nest-mates to danger, so you may be surrounded within second.

My media week 26/06/11

June 26, 2011

The New York Review of Books has a two part feature critical of the epidemic of mental illness: P1, P2.

Spiked criticises the narcissism of the Primark haters.

On In Our Time Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the ideas of Thomas Malthus, the Victorian clergyman whose work, ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’, forecast that soon the population would outstrip food supply.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

June 18, 2011

I have recently finished John McWhorter’s book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. McWhorter is a leading American linguistics professor who specialises in creoles. This book is about how English got to be the way it is. It has a quirky structure. I’ll begin by looking at chapters one and three, which deal with the impact of the Celts and the Vikings respectively. I mentioned before that McWhorter is an expert in creoles. This is relevant here because Modern English is in some sense a Creole. 

The typical comment you hear about English is that it is easy to get into but difficult to master. This may well be true, but Russian is difficult to get into and remains hideously complicated after that. We need to set English in its linguistic context. Firstly it is one of the Indo-European languages, whose parent language, known as Proto-Indo-European, is thought to have been spoken before 3000 BCE. And within this family we are one of the Germanic languages. English, though, doesn’t look like any other Germanic language. Its chief characteristic is its relative simplicity. I can imagine my students groaning when they hear this. No language is easy to learn. But English can make a claim to been one of the easier ones. It may not be Esperanto, but as world languages go, it is pretty user-friendly. We have very few declensions. We don’t have case endings. There are no tones like Chinese. English conjugations really are a piece of cake: I live – he lives.

There are differences in vocabulary between English and other Germanic languages. But what really sets us apart is the grammar. English does have some particular wrinkles that are not shared by any of our fellow Germanic languages. Chapter one looks at the Celtic influence. For instance we have the meaningless do, which we use in questions and negatives – Do you speak German?  Other Germanic languages don’t have this quirk. This feature has its origins in the Celtic languages spoken inEngland before the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. In chapter three, he deals with the wholesale loss of inflectional endings in English. Languages change. But why has English, alone among its Germanic relatives, lost so many of them? When a language is used in a place more by people as a second language than as a first language, then it starts to simplify. In the case of English he “blames” the Vikings. Old English was not dissimilar to their own language. They were able to get by but some of the more complicated features such as its case and tense markings were left by the wayside. The language revered today emerged more than a thousand years ago from the mouths of incompetent speakers.

This ties in with one of the tropes in this blog – spontaneous order. Languages are complex decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. We use them confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how they develop. But no language can ever make perfect sense there will always be leakage.

The second chapter is an attack on language pedants. McWhorter writes: “The lesson, quite simply, is that the conception that new ways of putting things are mistakes is an illusion.” The question he poses is why it was OK for English to morph in the past but not now. Did English somehow acquire perfection at some mythical point in the past?  Much of this variation was by chance.

Language is much more resilient than it is given credit for. We keep hearing that English is on the verge of collapse. Perhaps the Cassandras can give us an approximate forecast as to the date when English goes beyond repair. McWhorter  gives us some comical examples of what used to irritate prescriptivists in the nineteenth century:

 “Bad” English

What you were supposed to say

born in

born at

all the time  




make a choice


the first two children

the two first children

the house is being built


the house is building

The word standpoint was considered absurd because you weren’t actually standing anywhere. These criticisms seem uncannily similar to what we hear today.

I’m going to spend less time talking about the last two chapters – or should that be the two last chapters? In chapter four he debunks the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In its most extreme form it states that the language we speak is a straight-jacket that restricts our ability to think, reason, and understand. In English we have one word know, whereas languages like French and Spanish have two. Does that mean that speakers of these languages have a heightened awareness of the difference between knowing trigonometry and knowing Bill? I don’t think so. I’d like to quote McWhorter’s conclusion:

The idea that the world’s 6,000 languages conditions 6,000 pairs of cultural glasses simply does not hold water.  ….we all experience life by the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. No one is primitive. Just as important no one is privileged over others with a primal connection to the real.”

In the fifth and final chapter McWhorter goes out on an intriguing limb in proposing that Phoenician influenced Proto-Germanic (he gives as evidence striking similarities in Germanic and Semitic words)

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” is by no means a complete chronicle of our language. I am not an expert in historical linguistics. The book is decidedly idiosyncratic. His style may irritate you: “English, however, is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights.” I just happen to like it. It is a short book and cannot be considered a definitive history of English. I haven’t read it but David Crystal’s 600-page The Stories of English will provide you with a more complete overview. I have read Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English, which was also a TV series.   But I can still recommend this short book. And if you can get hold of the same author’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. There may not be any dead pandas, but you will learn a lot more about how languages really are.

English as She Is Spoke

June 18, 2011

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue John McWhorter mentioned his predilection for English as She Is Spoke, a book written by Pedro Carolino in the 19th century. It is often falsely credited to José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino. Carolino added Fonseca’s name to the book without the latter knowing about it. Fonseca had written a successful Portuguese-French phrase book, which Carolino adapted. The book was originally known as The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English, and the fact that he could not speak English was no deterrent to this hardy soul. With just a Portuguese-French phrase-book and a French-English dictionary Carolino set about initiating Portuguese students in the mysteries of the English language. Monty Python had their Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook sketch. Then there was that politically incorrect series, Mind Your Language. It is set in a school for adult students in London, focusing on the English as a Foreign Language. The “humour” of the show comes from the students misunderstanding English words with a bit of cultural stereotyping thrown in the mix. What makes English as She Is Spoke funny is that the laughs are unintentional. It has become a classic: Mark Twain was an early devotee:

Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure. … One cannot open this book anywhere and not find richness.”

The first part consists of lists of words and phrases in Portuguese and English accompanied by their English pronunciations.

Apply you at the study during that you are young.

These apricots and these peaches make me and to come water in mouth.

This room is filled of bugs.

I am confused all yours civilities.

You mistake you self heavily.

He is valuable his weight’s gold.

It must never to laugh of the unhappies.

The hands itch at him.

Do not might one’s understand to speak.

You mistake you self heavily.


The second part is dedicated to “Familiar dialogues” in English and Portuguese with their corresponding titles:

 For to travel

–          Where you go so?

–          I am going to Cadiz.

–          Have you already arrested a coach?

–          Yes, sir, and very cheap.

–          There is it some danger on the highway?

–          It is not spoken that.

–          They speak not that may have some robbers on the woods?

–          It have nothing to fear, or in day neither the night.

–          Don’t we does pass for a***?

–          No, sir, they leave it to left.

–          Let us take patience, still some o’clock, and we shall be in the  end of our voyage.


The fishing

–          That pond it seems me many multiplied of fishes. Let us amuse rather to the fishing.

–          Here, there is a wand and some hooks.

–          Silence! there is a superb perch! Give me quick the rod. Ah! There is, it is a lamprey. You mistake you,   it is a frog! dip again it in the water.


The walk

–          Will you and take a walk with me?

–          Wait for that the warm be out.

–          Go through that meadow.

–          Who the country is beautiful! who the trees are thick!

–          Take the bloom’s perfume.

–          It seems me that the corn does push alredy.

–          You hear the bird’s gurgling?

–          Which pleasure! which charm!

–          The field has by me a thousand charms.

–          Are you hunter? will you go to the hunting in one day this week?

–          Willingly; I have not a most pleasure in the world. There is some game on they cantons?

–          We have done a great walk.


The book ends with various small appendices including anecdotes, idiotisms and proverbs:

In the country of blinds, the one eyed men are kings.

It is better be single as a bad company.

He sin in trouble water.

To craunch the marmoset.

Guttler, a very rich man too many avaricious, commonly he was travel at a horse, and single for to avoid all expenses. In the evening at to arrive at the inn did feign to be indispose, to the end that one bring him the supper. He did ordered to the stable knave to bring in their room some straw, for to put in their boots he made to warm her bed and was go lo sleep. When the servant was draw again, he come up again, and with the straw of their boots, and the candle Avhat was leave him he made a small fire where he was roast a herring what he did keep of her pocket. He was always the precaution one to provide him self of a small of bread and one bring up a water bottle, and thus with a little money.




My media week 19/06/11

June 18, 2011

In reason.com Perverted Justice Jacob Sullum argues that sex offender laws represent the triumph of outrage over reason: Perverted Justice.

In Spiked Brendan O’Neill attacks the media’s role in the fake blogger debacle: Why so many hacks fell for the “gay girl in Syria.”

ABC’s The Philosopher’s Zone looks at some of the most villains in science fiction – the Daleks. What constitutes evil and why do the Daleks represent a very specific idea about rationality and morality? The evil of the Daleks.

The psychopaths have taken over the asylum

June 12, 2011

The other day one teacher took issue with me for using the term sociopath in my post about Bernie Madoff, The sociopath with his name on the door. In the article I did try to reflect how we struggle to find the right words to describe such people. This theme came to my mind again after reading Jon Ronson’s latest book The Psychopath Test. The journalist, documentary filmmaker, radio presenter and nonfiction author has carved out a niche for himself as a chronicler of eccentricity. He has written four books, of which his previous one, The Men Who Stare at Goats, is the most famous. His latest book gets its title from a diagnostic tool, used to identify psychopaths created by the psychologist Robert Hare – the Hare Checklist. The Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is a clinical rating scale of 20 items, which has to be administered by a suitably qualified and experienced clinician under controlled conditions.

Defining what a psychopath is can prove difficult. Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by an inability to form human attachment and an abnormal lack of empathy, which can be hidden behind an apparently normal outward appearance. The current definitions seem to be more concerned with the emotional rather than behavioural elements. These are people who don’t do regret, remorse or responsibility; they have different emotional responses to the rest of us. Somebody may be a psychopath, but that doesn’t mean they are going to eat somebody’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Is there really a cure for psychopaths? How do you instil empathy? Talk therapy may actually be counterproductive, making them more skilled at manipulating others.

The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is somewhat blurred. They are often used interchangeably; both are listed together in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-IV under the heading of Antisocial Personalities because they share many common traits. It is a complicated dispute for an outsider like me to grasp. Not only do experts dispute if the two terms are different, but those who believe that there is a difference argue over what those differences are.

The problems of diagnosis of mental illnesses came sharply into focus in a famous experiment from the 1970s. Psychologist David Rosenhan and seven other normal people, none of whom had ever had any psychiatric problems, got themselves admitted to various psychiatric hospitals in the USA. The only serious problem they had was getting out. Only by accepting that they were mentally ill and then pretending that they were getting better were they able to get released. The hospital staff had been unable to detect a single pseudopatient. And it got worse. Rosenhan was challenged to repeat the experiment. Only this time he didn’t send any fake patients. Nevertheless, the staff still detected large numbers of patients as impostors when they were genuinely ill. On Being Sane in Insane Places was considered a landmark study of psychiatric diagnosis. But it also took a lot of flak from the psychiatric profession. One doctor, Robert Spitzer, lambasted Rosenhan in a speech:

If I were to drink a quart of blood and, concealing what I had done, come to the emergency room of any hospital vomiting blood, the behaviour of the staff would be quite predictable. If they labelled and treated me as having a bleeding peptic ulcer, I doubt that I could argue convincingly that medical science does not know how to diagnose that condition.”

Robert L. Spitzer is another of the key figures in Ronson’s tale. This retired professor of psychiatry was a major architect of the modern classification of mental disorders, and was undoubtedly one of the most influential psychiatrists of the 20th century. He was instrumental in getting homosexuality removed as a mental disorder.

In the early 1970s psychiatry was in a state of flux. What Spitzer wanted was to make it as objective as possible. In 1974 he was put in charge of the APA task force preparing the third edition of the DSM. Spitzer wanted to get rid of all the Freudian nonsense about the subconscious and create a common worldwide language for all. Patients for the first time could enter a clinician’s office with the reasonable expectation of an accurate diagnosis and the appropriate treatment. The key tool would be the checklist – Spitzer had been inspired by pioneers like Bob Hare.  Any psychiatrist could pick up the DSM-III—and if the patient’s overt symptoms coincided with the checklist – they would be to provide a precise diagnosis-

The DSM-III became a worldwide success, helping to shape our culture and society profoundly. The idea was to make it objective. But maybe that goal was just too ambitious. Is this really science or is it the mere pretence of knowledge? Robert Spitzer’s successor, Allen Frances, continued the tradition of welcoming new mental disorders, with their corresponding checklists, into the manual. The first edition of DSM, which first came out in 1953, had had sixty-five pages. DSM-IV has 886 pages.  DSM-V is in the pipeline for 2013. I just wonder if the Amazon will be able to survive. You can actually consult it online here.

Ronson consulted the list and found that “I instantly diagnosed myself with twelve different ones. … I was much crazier than I had imagined.”  They seem to want to label life itself a mental disorder. Reviewing the DSM-IV for Harper’s in 1997, writer L.J. Davis was sceptical

Has there ever been a task more futile than the attempt to encompass, in the work of a single lifetime, let alone in a single work, the whole of human experience? For roughly five thousand years, poets, playwrights, philosophers, and cranks have incinerated untold quantities of olive oil, beeswax, and fossil fuel in pursuit of this maddeningly elusive goal; all have failed, sometimes heroically. Not even Shakespeare could manage it; closer to our own times, Dickens, a sentimental Englishman, the son of a clerk, perhaps came closest, though he believed in spontaneous human combustion and managed to miss the entirety of the twentieth century. Despite the best efforts of minds great, small, and sometimes insane, the riddle of the human condition has remained utterly impervious to solution. Until now. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (popularly known as the DSM-IV), human life is a form of mental illness.

Here are a few of 374 known mental disorders listed in DSM IV: Disorder of Written Expression, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Selective Mutism and Arithmetic Learning Disorder. After studying the Hare checklist, Ronson began to see psychopaths lurking in every corner of society—from maximum-security prisons to the corridors of power.

One fascinating part of the book is where he deals with capitalism and psychopathy. This is not a new theme in popular culture. In Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 film, The Parallax View, the evil Parallax Corporation uses a questionnaire to recruit potential assassins. Joel Balkan’s The Corporation linked the way corporations behave to the DSM-IV’s symptoms of psychopathy. The ruthless competitiveness of modern capitalism with constant downsizing and hostile takeovers provides a perfect environment for a psychopath. Individuals who ignore the rules and are good at conning and manipulating people can thrive here. Hare expressed it like this:

”If I couldn’t study psychopaths in prison, I would go down to the Stock Exchange.”

Ronson introduces us to Al Dunlap, a retired corporate executive, best known as a turnaround specialist and downsizer. His nicknames, Chainsaw Al and Rambo in Pinstripes, will give you an idea of his fearsome reputation. A massive accounting scandal at Sunbeam-Oster led to his retirement under a cloud of suspicion.

Ronson goes down to Dunlap’sFloridamansion to do the psychopath test on him. His description is very revealing:

The first obviously strange thing about Al Dunlap’s grand Florida mansion and lavish, manicured lawns was the unusually large number of ferocious sculptures there were of predatory animals. They were everywhere: stone lions and panthers with teeth bared, eagles soaring downward, hawks with fish in their talons, and on and on, across the grounds, around the lake, in the swimming pool/health club complex, in the many rooms. There were crystal lions and onyx lions and iron lions and iron panthers and paintings of lions and sculptures of human skulls.

Dunlap’s score on the test, in the low 20s, was below the score of 30 or more which experts consider symptomatic of psychopathy. Of course here we are in the terrain of emotive conjugations. I am a leader; you are authoritarian; he is a psychopath. Ronson shows how Dunlap spins the negative traits; he turns the psychopath checklist into Who Moved My Cheese?

Of course I wouldn’t limit my analysis to capitalism. We don’t have to look too hard to find communist psychopaths. Maybe psychopathy should be seen as an evolutionary adaptation, a complex survival mechanism.  I will close with a graffito at a Liberal Party conference many years ago:

Power corrupts and absolute power is even more fun

The Hare Checklist

June 12, 2011

Are you a psycho? Now you can try this fun test at home. These items cover the affective, interpersonal, and behavioural features of psychopathy. Each item is rated on a score from zero to two. The sum total determines the extent your psychopathy.

1. GLIB and SUPERFICIAL CHARM — the tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example.

2. GRANDIOSE SELF-WORTH — a grossly inflated view of one’s abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings.

3. NEED FOR STIMULATION or PRONENESS TO BOREDOM — an excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have a low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.

4. PATHOLOGICAL LYING — can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest.

5. CONNING AND MANIPULATIVENESS– the use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one’s victims.

6. LACK OF REMORSE OR GUILT — a lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, cold-hearted, and unempathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one’s victims.

7. SHALLOW AFFECT — emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.

8. CALLOUSNESS and LACK OF EMPATHY — a lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.

9. PARASITIC LIFESTYLE — an intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities.

10. POOR BEHAVIORAL CONTROLS — expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.

11. PROMISCUOUS SEXUAL BEHAVIOR — a variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.

12. EARLY BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS — a variety of behaviours prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home.

13. LACK OF REALISTIC, LONG-TERM GOALS — an inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life.

14. IMPULSIVITY — the occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless.

15. IRRESPONSIBILITY — repeated failure to fulfil or honour obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, and failing to honour contractual agreements.

16. FAILURE TO ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR OWN ACTIONS — a failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.

17. MANY SHORT-TERM MARITAL RELATIONSHIPS — a lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.

18. JUVENILE DELINQUENCY — behaviour problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.

19. REVOCATION OF CONDITION RELEASE — a revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear.

20. CRIMINAL VERSATILITY — a diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.

My media week 12/06/11

June 12, 2011

On The Infinite Monkey Cage Robin Ince and Brian Cox were joined by Stephen Fry, Simon Singh and Aleks Krotoski to discuss the maths behind 6 degrees of separation and whether there is something special about Kevin Bacon that seems to make him so well connected.

I regularly feature the blog Dollars and Sex. To celebrate her 100th post, Marina Adshade has a retrospective of the fifteen most popular posts to have appeared here over the past ten months. These include:

What Explains the Lesbian Wage Premium?

Why Aren’t Porn Stars Paid More?

Prostitution Paradox: Regulating Brothels Can Spread Disease.

Free Porn Lowers Rape Rates Apparently

Reason.tv: had anthropologist Grant McCracken on How Cultural Innovation Happens.

Roast pigeons in the mouths of comrades‏

June 4, 2011

We are and always shall be in favour of a centralised economy, and companies will have to conform to the Government’s planningSalvador Allende

They (the socialists) have criticized freely enough the economic structure of “free” society, but have consistently neglected to apply to the economics of the disputed socialist state the same caustic acumen, which they have revealed elsewhere, not always with success. Economics, as such, figures all too sparsely in the glamorous pictures painted by the Utopians. They invariably explain how, in the cloud-cuckoo lands of their fancy, roast pigeons will in some way fly into the mouths of the comrades, but they omit to show how this miracle is to take place. Ludwig von Mises, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth


The other day I was listening to a fascinating podcast with Tim Harford.  Harford has a new book out now called Adapt, which deals with the role of failure. In it he tells a story which I had not heard before and I immediately went to check it out. The story was about an unlikely collaboration between Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Marxist leader in Chile and Anthony Stafford Beer, a British theorist, consultant and professor at the Manchester Business School. Project Cybersyn, sought to avoid the pitfalls of the planned economies of Cuba and the Soviet Union by applying cybernetics,  the study of communication, feedback and control mechanisms in complex systems.

Project Cybersyn used a network of 500 Western Union telex machines to rapidly transmit data between the factory floor and the government. It was supposed to be in real time, but in reality each firm could only transmit data once per day. The futuristic operations room, with definite airs of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, was furnished with seven swivel chairs, as they were deemed best for creativity. These chairs, which were arranged in an inward facing circle, had armrests with buttons which controlled several projection screens, each displaying the data collected from the nationalised enterprises.

Allende was to hold power from 1970-73. The role of the United States’ government and companies in his downfall and substitution is notorious. On the morning of 11 September 1973 Augusto Pinochet launched a coup against the Allende government. By 2 p.m. Allende lay dead, his dream of democratic Marxism vanished as the flames engulfed the presidential palace, La Moneda. Following the coup, the military made a number of attempts to understand how the Cybersyn Project worked. They eventually decided to dismantle the operations room.*

It became one of the many casualties of the Pinochet dictatorship. His dictatorship would last until 1998 and many people would be tortured. Fortunately for Stafford Beer, he was in London on the day of the coup. Afflicted by survivor’s guilt, he ended up abandoning his family and moving to a cottage in rural Wales. He died in 2002 at the age of 76.

How can we judge this ill-fated experiment? I realise that it was carried out under extreme duress, but it does raise some intriguing questions about the role of information in decision-making.Chile’s economy collapsed, due to a number of interrelated factors: the chaos created by Allende’s ambitious programme of nationalisation, strikes that paralysed the country and the ceaseless efforts of theUnited Statesto undermine the regime. Moreover, Chile did not have much computing power. They had a single I.B.M. 360/50 mainframe. We need to put into some kind of perspective. Not only was it far less powerful than an iPhone, it had less storage capacity than most flash drives today.

However, the underlying problem with this kind of central planning may well have nothing to do with computing power.  Perhaps there just aren’t enough molecules in the universe to make a computer capable of mapping the interactions of a country of millions of people who constantly interact with the outside world. Moreover, it would be impossible to know all of the critical information required to make such decisions ex ante. So much of what we learn about the economy is after the fact. The planners had to rely on people in the factory giving the information that you want, but many of these would have their own agendas.

The complex nature of economies has been one of my tropes since I began blogging three years ago. The question needs to be seen within what is known as the Socialist Calculation Debate. On the left were those who believed in market socialism. At the beginning of the last century some socialists began to believe that they could manage the economy scientifically, blending neoclassical economics with social planning. In 1908 Enrico Barone proposed the concept of market socialism. The invisible hand would be replaced by the ministry of planning. Barone advocated the establishment of a planned society in which markets would operate. Then the baton was taken up by Oscar Lange. He believed that the development of high-speed computers would make planning a reality:

“Were I to rewrite my [1936] essay today my task would be much simpler. My answer to Hayek and Robbins would be: So what’s the trouble? Let us put the simultaneous equations on an electronic computer and we shall obtain the solution in less than a second. The market process with its cumbersome atonnements appears old fashioned. Indeed, it may be considered as a computing device of the pre-electronic age.”

Opposing them were the Austrian school, notably Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The first critic to enter the fray was Von Mises, who set out his stall in a famous article in 1920 – Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. Von Mises made the argument in a very interesting way. Traditionally the criticism of  communism had been that socialism was a wonderful ideal but humanity had somehow failed to live up to it. This view is reflected in the entomologist  Edward O. Wilson’s famous quip about Communism: “Great idea: wrong species.” But Mises goes much further. What he shows is that socialism is a bad idea because it cannot deal with the demands of a  complex world. In a small band of hunter-gatherers this kind of system may work, but when you have a lot of strangers together, it becomes impossible. You have the intractable problem of how to use scarce resources. As there are no real prices, the central planners would not know how to allocate the available resources efficiently.  Murray Rothbard summed up Mises’s critique:

All right, suppose that the socialists have been able to create a mighty army of citizens all eager to do the bidding of their masters, the socialist planners. What exactly would those planners tell this army to do? How would they know what products to order their eager slaves to produce, at what stage of production, how much of the product at each stage, what techniques or raw materials to use in that production and how much of each, and where specifically to locate all this production? How would they know their costs, or what process of production is or is not efficient?

In his groundbreaking 1945 essay, The Use of Knowledge in Society Hayek foresaw many of the problems that would be beyond the scope of even the most powerful computer. Hayek argued that the market was the best mechanism for calculating and coordinating choices; markets and competition were the best way to discover information. Prices were an information signal in the market; competition led to decentralized social planning. Here is Tim Harford writing about Hayek:

What Hayek realised, is  that a complex world is full of knowledge that is very local and fleeting. Crucially, the local information is often something that local agents would prefer to use for their own purposes. Hayek’s essay pre-dated modern computers, but his argument will retain its force until the day that computers can read our minds.

Who won this great intellectual battle? What is interesting is that there has a certain ideological to and fro since it all  began in the 1920s. I find the Austrians’ critique of Marxism utterly devastating. However, there will never be a definitive solution to these questions. The idea of an efficient market has taken rather a battering since the onset of the current financial crisis. But all the problems that have bedevilled central planning cannot be just made to go away. We would be making a tragic mistake if we went back to the kind of grandiose top-down planning that has failed time and time again.

Could technology become a game changer in the future.? Lenin was quoted as saying that the West was so hungry for profits that they would sell us the rope to hang them with. I have often wondered what would happen if a capitalist firm came up a computer that was so powerful it would actually make centralised planning feasible. I don’t really see it ever happening but it’s a tantalising thought.

* What I also noticed was the different strikingly different interpretations given to this fact. In the Guardian Andy Becket had a rather different take:

But they found the open, egalitarian aspects of the system unattractive and destroyed it.

These differing interpretations are typical of this whole episode.

There are some excellent resources about Project Cybersyn online:

Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile.  

Free As In Beer: Cybernetic Science Fictions. A 22:56 video.