June Pieces Of My Mind #1

Despite the chaos of our kitchen renovation, I have managed to build myself a little reading nest.
Despite the chaos of our kitchen renovation, I have managed to build myself a little reading nest.
  • Gotta love German. Try saying it out loud: “Die Beobachtung ferner Quasare, das holografische Prinzip und der Quantenschaum der Raumzeit”.
  • Resolutely put away my phone in order to read a book instead. Then remembered that the book is in the phone.
  • Ever wonder what the scarf-wearing Somali girls are going to do with their lives? Judging from two of Jr’s classmates in junior high, they’re going to be software engineers.
  • The question of archaeology’s practical usefulness should be treated as an empirical issue, open to unprejudiced investigation. Nobody will believe us if we just claim that what we do is self-evidently useful. I believe that almost all archaeology is useless from the practical perspective, but fun. In the unlikely event of any practical benefit, it must be solidly documented before we make claims.
  • Headphones with meaty bass. One of the best investments in sheer enjoyment I’ve made in ages.
  • I have no gravitas. Students keep asking me how old I am. Oh well, an archaeologist is never older than the last grave she excavated.
  • In about 1280, French sculptors worked on both the Cathedral and the main synagogue of Cologne.
  • My wife’s the hardest-working woman in the sunflower seed shelling business.
  • Strange to read this R.E. Howard bio by Mark Finn. He has considerable stylistic ambition, but shaky ability, and very emphatically no copy editor. I rarely read books that feel this home-made.
  • I’m starting a Christian splinter group. I teach that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. And that he acts in the world. And that this means that it is neither possible nor useful to influence his actions through deeds or faith. He careth not for praise, prayer, ritual nor sin. He is busy running every aspect of the world in an optimal way.
  • Movie: Mad Max Fury Road. Post-apocalyptic grotesque road warrior story with extra everything. Grade: Pass with distinction.
  • Middle age: when you no longer keep track of your grownup points, but of your youth points.
  • I’m deeply hostile to any research strategy that aims to propagate a pre-formulated view of a matter rather than investigate whether that view has empirical support. Even in cases where I find the viewpoint politically sympathetic.
  • In the 11th and 12th centuries, French and English cemeteries were often inhabited, particularly by war refugees. You find lots of pottery and other household waste.
  • Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian and wrote hundreds of stories. His neighbours thought he was crazy: while writing he would shout the dialogue.
  • June sun woke me at 05:15. These swings in day length are why Swedes have such a bipolar national character.
  • Jrette reads stuff she wrote four years ago in 1st grade and is embarrassed about her spelling. I’m like dude, my spelling hasn’t improved one bit in the past four years.
  • Jrette’s entire school sings to us. Only one of the teachers has a mike. She’s the only audible participant.
  • Wonder if L.S. de Camp ever tried LSD.
  • I’m rapidly becoming post-parental. I left for work before Jrette and her buddy had even woken up. Jrette called me to ask for some money zapped onto her visa card so she can buy a birthday present for another buddy. She’s buying the present and going to the party by public transport without any help from grownups. The girl is still eleven! I guess this is what you get when you aim to raise capable and independent kids.
  • Gómez is a Gothic loan word and cognate with Lat. homo.
  • Falafel is fried pea soup.
  • Robert E. Howard lived all his life with his TB suffering mother and killed himself when it was clear that she had only hours left to live. This has often been interpreted as him being unable to live without her. In his REH bio, Mark Finn makes an interesting and well-supported argument that turns this on its head. REH had been suicidal for years, but lived on because he was his mother’s primary care giver. He had in fact waited to be released from his duties.
  • Jrette’s 30-week run as a Swedish kids’ TV celebrity has started. The show is called Superhemligt.
  • The tooth layout of my jawbone is completely asymmetrical. One half is regular, the other half all curved and squiggly. Good thing the soft stuff covers it up and evens things out, or I would never have been able to reproduce. People have a hard-wired attraction towards symmetrical partners.
Holy Humvee, our house has a new door! Window! Door!
Holy Humvee, our house has a new door! Window! Door!

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

75 thoughts on “June Pieces Of My Mind #1”

  1. That’s not fanciful – it’s a Physics-based conclusion, and has to do with increased ‘surface roughness’ of urban areas, increase of aerosols released in urban areas, greater convection due to ‘heat island’ effects, etc., but apparently is extremely difficult to predict quantitatively.

    The temperature effects of urban ‘heat islands’ can obviously be directly measured with reference to historical records, and are well documented – all large cities act as ‘heat islands’. Likewise, the effects on air flow can be directly measured, and can also be modelled. Modelling of air flow modification is one of the requirements of modern town planning.

    NASA can no doubt produce similar findings for Shanghai, Mexico City, and any large American city e.g. LA.

    The growth of ‘first tier’ Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai has been very fast because China lagged the developed world in terms of the demographic transition (people moving from rural to urban areas) until relatively recently. The migration from rural to urban was previously controlled when the CCP had more of a grip on the population – now it is uncontrollable. The start of the demographic transition can pretty well be dated to the end of the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of the Chinese economy.


  2. One of the interesting things about the demographic transition is that, everywhere it has happened (including USA, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and anywhere else where the economy has transitioned to a modern developed economy), it has been accompanied by a drop in birth rates.

    The same has happened in China. The irony is that it looks pretty much like the One Child Policy was unnecessary – population growth dropped with the development of the economy anyway, to the point now where the ageing population is one of the major concerns in China, as it is anywhere where the demographic transition has occurred.

    This is now happening in India, most noticeably in those states which are more economically developed and prosperous. The only continent still experiencing population explosion is Africa.


  3. In Australia, the rural population has been steadily dropping. One mildly upsetting effect of this is that the first place that I lived in now no longer exists, and is no longer marked on the map. I know how to get there, and have been back there, but that is just because I remember where it was. There is nothing there now to show that it existed except the old school house where my father was the solitary teacher of a combined class of all primary years, including the local Aboriginal children – that has been turned into a minor museum, to show what typical small ‘bush’ schools were like.

    So I’m the Man from Nowhere, now.


  4. It’s not just in Australia, John. Rural population has been dropping in many parts of the US as well. My mother is from South Dakota, born in a once-thriving township that no longer has a post office. The farm where she was born is still in the family, but my cousin who runs it now has kept his day job in Sioux Falls, because the income from the farm (a spread covering about 25 km^2) isn’t enough to support him. There is no longer a permanent dwelling there; he lives in a trailer when he is on site. My mother worries that they may repeat the Dust Bowl experience because my cousin, like most people farming in South Dakota these days, has plowed some hillsides for extra crops. They don’t need as many farm hands as they used to, so there is nothing to keep people in the area.

    The town where my mother went to high school happens to be the state capital, so they still have an economy of sorts. Many small towns throughout the US, including the place where my father grew up, have no visible means of support. So anybody who can leave does.

    This isn’t a problem where I live, as it is close enough to Boston to be considered a feasible commute. It is a problem in the North Country. Up there, they still haven’t recovered from the 1990 recession.


  5. Depopulation of the countryside has been going on in Scandyland for 150 years and no reversal of the trend is in sight. Having lived all my life in suburbs of major cities I don’t really mind.


  6. Before the advent of modern sanitation, cities were population sinks, and people living in rural areas were healthier and lived longer. That was even the case in ancient Rome, which had the nearest thing to modern plumbing until the early 20th Century – people moved to the city and died. Retired legionnaires who had served their time and were rewarded with plots of farmland happily hightailed it out of the filth and disease ridden city and went to live in the country and farmed.

    That trend has now reversed – people living in rural areas have less access to modern health care and don’t live as long as people who live in urban areas. In Australia, this trend is accelerating – it is very difficult to persuade doctors to go and work in rural areas which are depopulating. As in Eric’s case, the traditional family farm is no longer sustainable financially, and farming is increasingly run as agribusiness. Countries like Germany and China who are keen to secure food supplies are buying up the agribusinesses and employing local farm managers to run the farms on an industrial scale.

    This has had a noticeable effect over the past 20 years – Perth, which once had excellent fruit and vegetables at relatively very cheap prices as recently as the 1990s, now has lousy stuff which is ridiculously expensive. All of the good stuff gets sent overseas. The bizarre outcome is that I can buy Australian fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood in Hong Kong which is cheaper and better than I can find in Perth. And I pay much lower taxes for the privilege.

    With the end of the mining boom in Western Australia as commodity prices have dropped like a rock with the slowing of the Chinese economy, I can even see the prospect of Perth depopulating due to lack of employment opportunities, at which point real estate prices, which have been ridiculously high, will also drop like a rock. Property speculators are already holding housing inventory which is sitting empty, and can’t earn enough rental income to cover their mortgage loans.

    The tipping point may come when interest rates stop getting cut. Currently, the Reserve Bank of Australia is fearful of any increase in interest rates because they know it will trigger the bursting of a massive real estate bubble in Australia, so they keep cutting. But it has to happen some time – they are just delaying the inevitable in the hope that they can somehow manage a ‘soft landing’. They are caught in a cleft stick – the more they cut interest rates, the lower the Australian dollar drops. Australia now manufactures virtually nothing, and imported goods are becoming progressively more expensive in Australian dollars.

    I can’t help the feeling that it’s all going to end in tears for a lot of low and middle income Australians, in an ageing population, with a lot of elderly people who can’t get work and don’t have the financial means to support themselves, and a bankrupt government that can’t support them.

    Colour me pessimistic.


  7. Sweden is very different. Sweden has a strong manufacturing base, producing stuff that is in demand in other countries. Both Sweden and Australia weathered the global financial crisis relatively well, but Australia did it on the back of the Chinese economy which fuelled the prolonged mining boom. Now that’s over, there is nothing in the Australian economy to replace it.

    I live in a satellite town of 500,000 people on the south coast of China, and smack in the heart of town is a big IKEA store that is always thronging with people, stuffing their faces with Swedish meatballs. The roads are full of Swedish trucks. I can’t escape the feeling that Sweden is sustainable and Australia is not.


  8. Australians I have spoken to do not welcome being reminded of this, but per capita, Australians have the biggest carbon footprints on earth. The Australian Prime Minister felt able to tour the globe lecturing to other countries about climate change, because Australia has a small population, but individually, Australians are a model of unsustainability. They build the biggest houses, now bigger than American houses, with huge poorly used open plan spaces which are very difficult and costly to heat and cool, in climates that require extensive cooling during summer and heating during winter (the houses are not well designed for either hot or cold weather). They drive the furthest distances, and in vehicles which are trending larger and with greater fossil fuel consumption. They are strongly resistant to high-rise living, so the urban sprawl around Australian cities just keeps getting larger and larger, with people having to spend more and more time sitting in their over-sized motor vehicles commuting to work. The urban sprawls are such that they are impossible to service with efficient public transport, which in any case has been very seriously neglected over the past 3 decades, with suburban rail lines actually closing down in some cases.

    Viewed from the outside, Australian cities are very unsustainable. But when I try to discuss this with my countrymen, their reaction is resentful and denialist. They are still ‘living the Australian dream’, which is to live in a 4 bedroom 2 bathroom fully detached single storey house, with the biggest air gap that they can get between them and their neighbours, and for which they are willing to take on a mortgage that will take the whole of their working lives to pay off, with the idea that sale of the house will ultimately fund their retirement – a model that is looking increasingly dangerously optimistic.

    If the Australian real estate bubble does burst, a high proportion of the population will be left holding large negative equity, in an economy that will increasingly be unable to supply well paid jobs. Australians already have some of the highest individual debt levels in the world.


  9. Martin et all, is the peat bog bodies preserved by something besides the low oxygen content? The anaerobic bacteria in the digestive tract do not need oxygen so one would expect the whole body to get “liquefied” from inside. What is it that arrests decomposition?.
    — — — — — —
    “resentful and denialist” …yes. before the mess in USA 2007 critics of the system were regarded as kooks. Sadly it was the same in Sweden before our big 1990s collapse.

    ” If the Australian real estate bubble does burst”
    It looks if the human mind works in a way tha makes disasters necessary to remind people of the dangers. In the 1990s Sweden had essentially skipped a recession cycle, and highly paid people who should have seen trouble brewing ignored the lessons of the past.
    In the 1990s, the Great Depression had disappeared from living memory amd Americans began de-regulating the finance sector.


  10. No oak log burial has been sampled for modern lab analyses. But I believe humic acid from the peat, tannic acid from the oakwood and the formation of airtight iron pan inside the barrows are important.


  11. Archaeologists need vacations too…. I have tried to find exciting news (apart from the DNA stuff) but right now it seems pretty slow…
    For skeptics who want to read about non-functional weltanschaungs and general delusional thinking, here is a link to Dispatches from the Culture Wars http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/


  12. #61 – Don’t know. But people who design sewage treatment plants use anaerobic digestion of sewage sludge (basically the concentrated solids mixed with some fluids), and at the end of that they end up with ‘de-activated sludge’ or ‘treated sludge’ (sludge in which all of the pathogens have been killed) – so then they have to de-water the sludge and dispose of it somewhere, like in a landfill. Some people advocate using it as fertiliser, but that’s really a bad idea because the de-activated sludge still contains elevated levels of heavy metals, etc. which are bio-available for uptake by plants, and which get returned to the environment at levels elevated above natural background levels.

    One day some genius is going to figure out how to mine the heavy metals out of human shit, thereby doing everyone a favour by rendering the de-activated sludge safer to use as fertiliser and recovering the heavy metals for use as something useful.

    What they don’t end up with after anaerobic digestion is all of the sludge (organic solids) being digested and turned into liquids and gases – a lot of it is turned into gases, and they use anaerobic sludge digestion to generate bio-gas (basically methane) which can be used to generate energy. But what I’m getting at is that at the end of the process they are still left with solids to dispose of, albeit dewatered solids.

    So something stops the process at some point. Maybe when the anaerobic bacteria run out of whatever it is that they eat.

    I presume that in landfills, the sludge undergoes further aerobic decomposition until not much is left.

    I presume that is what happens to peat bodies if they are cut open and left out in the atmosphere – that they would then undergo the aerobic decomposition that the slightly acidic peat environment has been preventing, and they then decompose like any other human remains.

    If there was an anaerobic decomposition process that turned all of the organic solids in sewage into liquids and gases, then sewage treatment plant operators would all be very happily using it, so we can assume there isn’t.


  13. #65 – They occur naturally at ‘background’ levels as minerals in rocks and soils, sometimes in very high concentrations. They can be sorted selectively by flow of groundwater and streams, or formed into veins by thermal activity such as metamorphism.

    They get taken up by food crops and ingested by humans. (A classic case is that rice is very good at taking up arsenic – in America, a lot of rice is grown on fields that were previously used to grow cotton. The cotton was prey to all manner of insect pests, and so the cotton crops were sprayed with toxins like arsenic to kill the pests, and now the soil is above-background level in arsenic, which is readily taken up by the rice crops – hence warnings in America not to consume too much rice. Most of the arsenic is retained in the husks, so the worst thing to do is to eat the rice as brown rice rather than refined white rice. Arsenic is a carcinogen at sub-lethal concentrations.)

    Many heavy metals are cumulative, so humans accumulate higher concentrations of them in their bodies before they eventually pass out.

    They get taken up by marine organisms that ingest soil particles and accumulated in progressively higher concentrations up the food chain until they are ingested by humans eating seafood. Classic cases are the oysters which are farmed in Hong Kong, which are very high in cadmium, and sharks and large pelagic fish, which carry very high mercury levels – hence the advice not to eat large fish like swordfish, tuna and mackerel too often.

    Likewise they are accumulated in the bodies of domesticated animals which are in turn consumed by humans.

    They can even be breathed in as wind blown dust if you are located in a ‘hot spot’ where there are naturally high levels of some heavy metals, or otherwise accidentally ingested.

    The outcome is that heavy metals are present in human shit at higher concentrations than background levels. Putting the shit as fertiliser on food crops is just going to recycle the heavy metals back into the humans again to become accumulated into even higher concentrations.

    Not all food plants take up all heavy metals, but enough do. Leafy green vegetables take up arsenic.


  14. #67 – I saw that. That was a classic. He clearly had no idea what he was talking about. He couldn’t even quote the crackpot theory correctly.


  15. If the Australian real estate bubble does burst, a high proportion of the population will be left holding large negative equity, in an economy that will increasingly be unable to supply well paid jobs.

    Which is exactly where much of the US was ten years ago. Parts of the country, including my town, have recovered to some extent, but it took a long time. Other places, such as California’s Inland Empire (San Bernardino/Riverside) and Central Valley (Bakersfield to Redding, including Sacramento), may never fully recover. People tend to underestimate what a pain it is to commute long distances in heavy traffic. And much of the western US (especially California) have serious water issues. Green lawns were already ridiculous in England–hey, let’s devote perfectly good agricultural land to the cultivation of an entirely useless high-maintenance crop! But at least England has a suitable climate for that kind of thing. Most of the western US doesn’t, and neither does Australia.


  16. #70 – I think the problems are easy enough to figure out. Gender imbalance, so no hope of getting a girlfriend. Pressure on not very bright kids to excel at school. Unemployment.

    That addiction centre looks a lot like a prison to me.

    #71 – Spot on again, Eric. And southern Australia is on a prolonged drying and heating trend. Sometimes I think Australians gave up going to church because they need to mow their lawns on Sunday mornings – big expanses of front lawn that take a lot of water they don’t have, and fertiliser, and then need to be cut all the time and the grass clippings disposed of. And they are not used for anything. The English style Australian front garden may as well be a featureless desert, because no one uses his front garden for anything at all.

    I admire my late father. When he finally bought a house, he built the smallest one he could on a small piece of land; he filled the front garden with drought resistant native flora, and at the back he farmed vegetables and grew fruit trees.


  17. Is there a reason people don’t plant trees in Australia? Granted, trees use a lot of water, too, but much of that goes into wood. You also have to rake the leaves after they fall, but that’s only a few times a year at most. Best of all, mature trees are good for shade, especially if planted on the equatorward side of the house–less strain on your air conditioning system, or (in my case) less need to install an air conditioning system.

    Most of my neighbors are pretty good about avoiding the unused featureless expanse of lawn. But some houses in the neighborhood are landscaped thus, and in many parts of the US, it’s considered normal–even enforced, in some areas, by homeowners’ associations.

    The last few years I have been reducing the size of my lawn, replacing parts of it (especially where it’s hard to mow, or grass isn’t growing anyway) with landscaping. The flowers look much prettier than grass ever can. I haven’t put in a vegetable garden yet, but that’s on my list, along with planting another tree or two.


  18. Some people do plant trees, but the trees that grow best and require least water are hardwood eucalypts, which are very slow growing. The exception is the Tasmanian Blue Gum, which grows fast, but the downside is that it grows very tall and it drops large branches, which you don’t want crashing through your roof.

    My father planted native trees (carefully avoiding Tassie Blue Gums) and the outcome of that was that my mother used to insist on going out and raking up the leaves every single morning. Also, the leaves clog the roof gutters and you have to get out on a ladder several times a year to clean them out.

    Me, I like a few dead leaves around. It looks more natural and provides good hiding places for the spiders, centipedes and scorpions.

    The other catch, aside from people like my mother who take it as a personal insult to have a slightly untidy looking garden, is that the eucalypts are deep rooting and very good at seeking out any source of water, so at some point your drainage pipes are going to get disrupted and blocked by roots. They’re not as bad for that as willows, but they’re pretty bad, and calling out a plumber in Australia can bankrupt a person. And it’s a job that plumbers seem to hate, so you have some big hairy guy swearing at you while he drains your wallet.

    With my father’s enthusiasm for planting trees, a visitation from a swearing plumber has had to happen several times over.

    I’ve had my patches of enthusiasm about growing vegetables, but I don’t like using insecticides of any kind, and to see your carefully nurtured crops gone through by pests is just too heartbreaking. However, I am a champion fennel grower – in my last vege garden I planted one fennel plant, and the damn stuff nearly took over the whole garden – new fennel plants kept cropping up everywhere, so matter what I did to try to keep it down. We had two things in great abundance in that garden – fennel and rosemary. Just about everything else I planted got eaten by snails, slugs and various other pests, and the Chinese vegetables were always the first to get ravaged.

    Yeah, there are suburbs of Perth where it is not permitted to fell a tree, or even to lop off dangerous over-hanging heavy branches that could kill someone. People go overboard about it, even when common sense should tell them that a tree has become dangerous and needs some judicious cutting back.

    I love trees, but I’m not suicidal about them. But I prefer productive trees, so my inclination is to grow fruit and nut trees, although what the pests don’t ruin the damned black cockatoos come and rip to shreds. I planted an almond tree, and the year it produced its first really good crop of almonds, I was just savouring the almonds ripening, because there’s nothing like almonds picked straight off the tree, when a flock of black cockatoos descended on the tree and stripped in bare.


  19. I understand the desire for productive trees. My landscaping includes several blueberry bushes–that species grows wild in this part of the US. Alas, they barely produce enough fruit to top one bowl of oatmeal, even if the fruits all ripened at once (they don’t).

    I am fortunate to be in a climate that generally sees adequate rainfall year round, so most houses here don’t have irrigation systems, as is common in places with an identifiable dry season, inadequate overall rainfall, or both. The primary limitation I have is winter frost: I am in USDA hardiness zone 5.

    That Wikipedia article demonstrates what a nice thing the Gulf Stream is for northwestern Europe. At 43 degrees north latitude, I am in the same hardiness zone as Umeå (64N), Kiruna (68N, but in a regional warm spot), and Longyearbyen (78N), the latter being the principal city of Svalbard. Martin can grow things in his garden that won’t survive in mine: Stockholm is zone 7, as is Tromsø.


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