November Pieces Of My Mind #1


Västerbron Bridge and Högalid Church, view from the National Archives

  • Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” is so much better with fat bass amplification.
  • In the 80s we never realised that radioactive no-go zones like Chernobyl and Fukushima would become verdant teeming natural habitat thanks to the removal of human activity.
  • Seasonal mood dip, check. Going to Greece in three weeks.
  • Yesterday I ran out of research funding completely for the first time since I quit contract archaeology in 2002. Today I am unemployed at 75% of full time. Thanks to a good friend at the National Archives who has some archaeological stuff that needs doing, I will be employed at 125% of full time during November and December while I hunt for jobs.
  • Movie: Suspiria. Beautiful imagery, innovative score, poor pacing, ridiculous horror scenes. Grade: OK.
  • Junior is reading my first publication from when I was 17 and praising it.
  • The supervillain is smarter and more skilled than most. By analogy, the current US president is an infravillain.
  • Prehistoric archaeology is like reconstructing a stage play from a visit to the theatre’s props department.
  • The Quirks & Quarks podcast just encouraged me to imagine that I am a young fruit bat.
  • Suddenly remembered the grandparents of a good friend from my teens. They were a lovely old couple. I liked them.
  • The idea that young women would fake an interest in geek culture baffles me. Many geeks fake an interest in stuff that makes you look cool.
  • I don’t like throwing out food, so unless I can have a doggy bag I usually cram down everything I’m served. I am currently stuffed to the gills with something us Swedes call “Flying Jacob”. Anyone familiar with this dish will realise that I … am … woah … I … am … oh man … a little … queasy … now.
  • In ’90 I chose to buy The Cure’s Disintegration over Love & Rockets’ eponymous album. Probably a good call.
  • There are only two Google hits for the search term “trilobite gonads”.
  • Stopped by a supermarket on my way to work and bought some cheap lunches: 4 ramen, 12 eggs, 1 jar of kimchi. The catered lunches here at my new workplace are cheap and tasty, but they’re a bit too big for me and ramen is even cheaper. Not going back though to the lunch routine of my railway excavation years 1992-93, when I had ramen (no eggs, no kimchi) every second day and Småland cheese cake every other.
  • There’s a sax on Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing In The Moonlight”. Huh.
  • Office kitchen has 1 sauce pan, 8 lids. Suggests that the sauce pan is the larval stage of the lid. Metamorphosing quietly in the cupboards.
  • Before my computer wakes up out of sleep mode, the screen complains “No DP signal from your device”. This reassures me, because though I enjoy good communication with my device, it has certainly never signalled to me about DP. I really don’t know why the screen expects this.
  • Prepped a talk about developments in the Östergötland mead-halls field since I published a book about it in 2011. Intense feeling of enthusiasm and satisfaction.

Cubicle personalised



87 thoughts on “November Pieces Of My Mind #1

  1. “Suggests that the sauce pan is the larval stage of the lid.” Or vice versa; you may yet find yourself up to your armpits in saucepans engaging in some sort of mating frenzy, shortly before they die off, leaving the cupboards cluttered with lids.


  2. In HK, there was a quarry operating on one of the outlying islands. It included a casting basin excavated in the quarry floor and connected to the sea, so that it could be used for floating out precast concrete units used to construct an immersed tube tunnel (one that sits on a prepared foundation on the seabed, rather than being bored through the rock beneath). When the quarry was worked out (in about 2003, from memory), the contractor landscaped the site – a brilliant piece of work that included a lot of planting of native species of flora, and creating some artificial stream courses, and they turned the casting basin into an artificial lake, still connected to the sea. The artificial lake was colonised by marine organisms amazingly quickly (benthic biota, polychaetes and such, will colonise a new piece of unoccupied seabed in a matter of days, rather than weeks, months or years, and wherever they colonise, the marine biota who prey on them will also move in, and so on up the food chain).

    The government didn’t know what to do with this beautifully landscaped site (a big area, 49 hectares, so they fenced it off to prevent squatters from moving in and building shacks on it), and just left it to grow wild. It has sat there unused ever since. (I made some suggestions which were very popular with the local residents, like moving the HK zoological gardens there so that the animals could have decent, well designed enclosures to the standards of the best modern zoos, but neither the government nor the WWF showed the slightest interest in my suggestion. It was not a trivial suggestion – the HK zoological gardens runs a captive breeding programme for orang utans, which was started and run by the old English medical practitioner who was my GP for quite a while until he retired and left HK, but the standard of their housing is abysmal).

    Last time I visited the site and walked it (I needed government permission, and someone to unlock the gates for me to get into it), it had turned into, in effect, a wildlife refuge; the artificial stream courses were full of frogs and small freshwater fish, the artificial lake was teeming with marine fish, and the bird life, both in terms of numbers and diversity of species, was spectacular. I counted 17 black kites (Milvus migrans), which are normally seen as solitary flyers or as breeding pairs, all sitting around the lake, fishing – as I approached, they all took off as one big flock, a sight I had never seen before. There was also an abundance of insects, both in terms of number and diversity, and no doubt some native mammals had migrated in from other parts of the island, but they are much harder to spot, especially during the day (although a trained ecologist could no doubt compile evidence of what is frequenting the area).

    So now, I kind of hope that the government continues not to know what to do with this piece of land. The fencing effectively keeps humans out of the site, and it now definitely belongs to the wildlife. Some enterprising green group could seek to introduce some endangered mammal species there – at 49 hectares it’s too small to accommodate tigers (and besides which, the fencing isn’t good enough to keep them in, although very effective in keeping humans out – besides which, the tigers could just swim out via the connection between the artificial lake and the sea), but there are plenty of smaller species like pangolins and leopard cats that could survive there) – but the green groups seem to regard their ‘job’ as being that of negative critics of others, rather than as creative doers. Call me cynical, but it sometimes strikes me that the attraction of these groups is to enable people to feel morally superior, rather than actually doing anything genuinely constructive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I fancy that the black kites I referred to are the subspecies M.m. lineatus, common name black-eared kite, which is what I usually refer to them as, usually to blank uncomprehending looks – but then, not too many people in my profession are polymaths. They are not the biggest predatory birds, but also far from the smallest, when one of them flaps right past your window, it looks bloody huge. They thrive in HK the way that gulls do in some other coastal cities, probably because they eat rats, and HK has a veritable abundance of rats.

      Liked by 1 person

    • There are quite a lot of former industrial sites, particulary former quarries, in the UK that have ended up becoming Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) as a result of similar benign abandonment. The designation gives them some protection as well as indicating that they are of wildlife interest and importance. Even where such sites don’t end up as SSSI’s they often become a local leisure resource, sometimes officially as in somewhere like Rother Valley Country Park which I visited occasionally when I lived in Sheffield, but also unofficially. Particularly before the Right To Roam legislation they were a valuable resource for communities and they contnue to be so as they are often the nearest bit of ‘wild’ space to comparitively deprived former industrial areas.


    • Something similar happened on a larger scale here in New England: much marginal farmland was abandoned after eighteen hundred and froze-to-death (1816, also known as the Year Without a Summer), and the forests grew back. The oldest forests in the area are only about 200 years old.


    • …and this gives me an idea. Martin, if you are good at driving really fast, there may be bank-related employment opportunities for you.


  3. The band “Those Dancing Days” has been dissolved, and most band members have gone on to “Volkano”. They keep making great music (“C’est Bon”, for instance) but I wish they found a different video producer.


  4. Quote from Police Procedural/ urban fantasy “Rivers of London”:
    “The motto of West African cooking is, if the food does not set the table cloth on fire, the cook is being stingy with the pepper. “


      • Confusion arises because the word ‘pepper’ is used to identify several different genuses of plants, including Piper negrum, which is native to southern India, adds spiciness (‘heat’) to food due to the chemical piperine, and which was used extensively to add spiciness to food both in India and extensively in other countries, notably in hot climates where meat spoils quickly without refrigeration, prior to the Columbian Exchange.

        It’s likely West African food was spicy hot even before 1492, due to the extensive use of black pepper obtained from Piper negrum. African Chicken, an infamously spicy dish served in Macau (which had African slavery, so the recipe derived from African slaves in Macau) is spiced with black pepper, not chilis, and it is so spicy that a lot of people simply can’t stand to put any of it into their mouths, including me.

        Other plants have also been used to impart spiciness to food, e.g. the Indian long pepper, which also belongs to the Piper genus.

        So, it’s not like the world didn’t have spicy food outside of the Americas before 1492; it certainly did, and those ‘hot’ spices were very widely traded.


      • So, for example, in answer to the question why did people like the Thais, the Sechuanese and people on the Indian subcontinent develop such a liking for spicy food after the chili became available to them, the answer is they didn’t – they had that taste a long time before, they just used different spices to provide the ‘heat’.


    • I do enjoy that series, I am frustrated that the move into hardback has meant waiting longer for the next installment given that I don’t buy hb if I can in any way avoid it for space as much as for cash reasons. Though it is good for Aaronovitch of course.


    • The company that makes the Keurig coffee machines (the ones that use the individual K-cups) announced that they were boycotting Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News after his interview with Roy Moore. So what do Moore’s supporters do in response? Smash their Keurig machines, that’s what.

      Moore says he plans to sue the Washington Post over the article that included the allegations. Remember, he’s a public figure, in a country where it is almost impossible for public figures to win libel suits. The story is quite well sourced. And if he persists, he will learn what Oscar Wilde learned the hard way: the defendants can engage in discovery, which is likely to uncover additional sordid details. Expect popcorn futures to soar if Moore follows through on this threat.

      The news isn’t all bad. Polls released over the weekend indicate that Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee in the race, has taken a small lead.


  5. (In my best American accent, which sounds like it comes from somewhere in the deep south, and which I can keep up for about 3 minutes before it starts to irretrievably break down) – A shout out to the R1b guys (yay us!)

    I’m not being sexist here, girls, but, well, you just don’t have a Y chromosome. It sucks, I know. Or maybe it doesn’t – it is becoming increasingly clear, as if it wasn’t already, that the people who don’t have one are definitely the nicer, more decent humans. But then I have thought that for a very long time. The ongoing post-Weinstein revelations are just continuing to confirm it. I have just finished binge-watching a Netflix series called Mindhunter, about two FBI agents in the early 1970s (brilliantly depicted in the series – all of the cars are period-appropriate, plus lots of other stuff) who interview incarcerated serial killers to try to establish patterns of behaviour which will enable police to identify suspects and make arrests earlier. The series is also good because a lot of it is based on actual reality, although the characters in the series are obviously fictional. All of the serial killers are white males, and all of them committed the murders as a way of exercising power over their victims – the difference between them and someone like Weinstein is that he didn’t actually torture, kill and mutilate the bodies of his victims. But that he was a serial rapist over a long period of time is now beyond question.

    Ancient ancestry data in Europe/West Eurasia are now getting so numerous and complex that, rather than try to talk through any of this, it’s just easier to give the link to David’s latest post. The PCA plots blow up bigger if you click on them, obviously.


  6. Documentary: How so many US veterand s got sick: “Burn Pits’ Legacy: ‘Delay, Deny, Hope They Die’
    Wow…first they put conscripts near nuclear test sites in the fifties. Then came Vietnam and agent orange/agent Purple. Then came Gulf War syndrome. And now this. And every time they have screwed over their own veterans.
    I mean, Pentagon is better at killing off US citizens than al-quaeda.


  7. Ha! “New study suggests it may be fructan, not gluten, that is upsetting people’s stomachs ”

    Former Moore Co-worker: He Liked to Date Teen Girls
    (sarcastic comment): “Look things were different back then in Alabama. The average life expectancy was, I am going to guess, 24. If you weren’t a grandparent by the time you dropped out of middle school you weren’t even trying. ”.


    • The practice of men marrying girls appears to be common in certain parts of the evangelical community, as, e.g., this post by Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism. It’s a way of controlling females: find them a husband to submit to before they have any chance to gain experience on their own. Nor is it limited to evangelical Protestantism: certain branches of LDS practice it, as well as some extreme Muslims and Hindus. They can even cite precedents in their holy books for the practice: Joseph and Mary in the case of Christians, Mohammed and Aisha in the case of Muslims. That doesn’t make it right.

      I have heard the following rule of thumb regarding age differences in relationships: Divide his age by two and add seven. If she’s younger than that, it’s fair to regard the relationship as creepy. It’s only a rough guide, because among other things it would have ruled out Romeo and Juliet (who were both 13, as I understand it), but anybody who has completed university at a normal age should not be dating someone who is still in high school

      Moore made it worse in at least two ways: he was an authority figure, and he tended to pursue girls with absent fathers. That pushes what he did over the line that separates creepy from predatory.


      • The late Geza Vermes, a highly respected Biblical historian with a real talent for cutting through made-up stuff and digging relentlessly for historical and astronomical facts, shocked a lot of people when he said that Mary was likely to have been 12 years old when she gave birth to Jesus; he stated that the context for this was historical evidence that it was the norm in that part of the world at that time for girls to be married off at the age of 11, and consequently to give birth to their first child at age 12. Joseph was likely to have been considerably older – a mature adult. Even so, if the Bible can be taken as any kind of credible record, Mary was definitely not comfortable or happy with the idea of becoming pregnant when she did. She needed an angel to talk her into it, no less, against her better judgement.

        Judged from the modern context, that looks awful, and it is no defence for people who want to do it now. Times change, and what was considered OK then is not necessarily OK now. It is wrong-headed to project moral judgements backwards into history, because they get in the way of establishing facts in an unbiased and objective manner. Revisionist historians are guilty of this frequently. Context is everything. Feudalism looks like an awful system now, but at the time it was a lot better than slavery.

        Equally, it is wrong-headed and ridiculous for people now to project forward and claim that, because something was regarded as OK 2,000 years ago and a long way away geographically, it should be OK now. What a female child’s parents might think is OK is also largely irrelevant; children have individual rights, and many need to be protected from their own abusive parents.

        What Shakespeare considered OK in the case of Romeo and Juliet is also irrelevant in a modern context.


  8. The Leonid meteors peak at November 17.
    Try to get out at 3 am to Watch it, somewhere beyond the city.
    — — — —
    “Area Man Afraid Some Woman Might Come Out Of The Woodwork To Hold Him Accountable For Something”
    “Donna Brazile Says Hillary Rodham Clinton High Palace Of The Solar Order Was Almost Like A Cult”

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a reminiscence of Sweden’s complete culinary innocence prior to about 1970. We knew about Swedish food. And French food, which equalled fine dining. But Swedes didn’t even know the word “pizza” in 1958. “Flygande Jakob” was created by a Swede who worked for an airline and had sort of tried weird foreign food, but misunderstood it.


      • That phenomenon was not limited to Sweden. That’s why BBC was able to perpetrate the famous Swiss spaghetti harvest hoax on 1 April 1957.

        The US has always had immigrants, so we were a bit more sophisticated, but there were still gaping holes in our culinary knowledge. To this day, most “Chinese food” served in restaurants is highly Americanized; to get the real stuff you have to go to a Chinatown, preferably in the company of somebody who speaks the language. In addition, I have a cookbook that was published in 1963, the authors of which seem to have been unaware of this product called olive oil.


      • I first tasted pizza when I was well into my 20s. I had known of its existence long before, from reading American comics when I was a kid, but had no idea what it tasted or smelled like. Then, a Pizza Hut finally opened not far from where I lived. The way that stuff tasted was a revelation to me; I couldn’t get enough of it. The magic ingredient that was so seductive to me was the oregano – the smell as well as the taste. I scorn pizza in HK because they go very light on the oregano – seems like it doesn’t suit local tastes. To me, it’s still magic. I will eat anything with enough oregano on it. For a while I haunted an Italian restaurant in HK that served pizza with enough oregano on it, but that eventually closed down. Nowhere else since has come close.

        That first Pizza Hut in Perth is still going strong, amazingly – same location, same building, same everything. They haven’t changed anything; not a single thing. Well, one thing – they now take phone orders and do take-out – they didn’t back then when they first opened, you had to sit in their restaurant to order, and eat the pizza there. I guess they decided they needed to do take-out orders when the queues of people waiting for a table started extending around the block. Now, there are still queues of people extending around the block, but now they are just waiting to pick up their take-out.

        Perth had plenty of Italian migrants who did what a lot of migrants do when they don’t know what to work at in a new country – they opened restaurants. Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Vietnamese, they all did it. They might not know a lot about cooking, but hey, the locals don’t know the difference, or they didn’t back then when the place was much less cosmopolitan, and people were less well traveled, and less adventurous with trying ‘foreign’ food. You would think that some enterprising Neapolitan would have thought to introduce real Italian pizza, but none of them did. It was left to an American chain to introduce pizza to Perth. They have had no reason at all to regret that decision. Plenty of competitors have come and gone, but Pizza Hut remains doggedly the same – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

        Contrast with the much more recent debacle of Starbucks trying to gain entry to Australia. By now, Australians know a good cup of coffee when they taste it – generations of Italians saw to that. The dishwater and ‘novelty’ coffees served up by Starbucks went over in Australia like a lead balloon. Their strategy of undercutting their competitors on price/bidding higher rental for the same commercial spaces and driving them out of business didn’t work in Australia (it has in HK, unfortunately) – Australians were just not going to drink that dishwater, no matter how cheap it was, and they weren’t going to order a pink salt pumpkin latte either. Starbucks suffered a big financial loss, gave up and went home. There is now not a single Starbucks anywhere in Australia.


      • I still laugh when I think of this. When my daughter was doing her first degree, she was staying in a student residence while my wife and I were safely back in HK. The food served at the student residence was diabolically bad, and my daughter just wouldn’t eat it. But, within walking distance, there was (still is) a very good Italian restaurant run by a very funny guy from Naples. He’s a natural clown. So, my daughter used to get a lot of her meals from this restaurant – cost me a fortune in food bills (on top of what I was forced to pay for food at the student residence that she never ate).

        Once she phoned this restaurant to order take-out pizza (his pizza is as good as everything else he dishes up), then trekked down to the restaurant to collect it. When the guy brought her the pizza in a box, he asked her if she wanted a plastic bag to carry it home in. She said “Oh no, that’s fine. I’ll just carry the box.” The guy threw his arms in the air, looked heavenwards and yelled “We save-a da world!” She couldn’t stop laughing all the way home.


      • I might add, when the clown from Naples found out that my wife and I were returning to HK and leaving our daughter on her own in Perth, he said to me “Don’t worry – we look after her.” He did what he could – she often dined in alone there, and always got special attention and excellent service from the staff, who would often stop to chat to her while she was eating, so that she didn’t feel lonely or awkward about dining alone there, and the clown never failed to ask her how she was doing and if she was OK. Periodically he would add “If you have any problem, you let me know. I promise your father I look after you.” He meant it. After all the anti-Asian crap she copped at that university and in Perth generally, his restaurant became a kind of safe haven for her; a home away from home where everyone was nice, warm and friendly to her.

        That guy is worth his weight in solid gold. It will be a tragedy when he finally retires and the restaurant closes. It’s his baby, so he won’t be selling it on to anyone. His reputation, and the personal rapport and loyalty he builds with his customers, are precious to him, which is a real rarity in my experience.


      • Immigrant restauranteurs often have to adjust their recipes to suit local tastes. That may be why the Neapolitans in Perth didn’t start serving pizza until Pizza Hut came to town–the immigrants thought pizza might be too exotic for the local palate. And as in Hong Kong, where they presumably use less oregano because the locals don’t care for it.

        A really good restauranteur will adjust the cooking for the client. In locally owned pizza shops in my area, you will typically find shakers of oregano, parmesan cheese, and crushed red pepper that you can use to adjust the flavor of the pizza to your taste–next time you are in a pizza place in Hong Kong, look for those shakers or ask the waitstaff for them. I also see this in the Indian restaurant I visit regularly–most New Englanders have a low tolerance for spice, but he will spice it up for me because I like spicy food (but not quite to native levels, because that’s beyond my limits), or provide hot sauce on the side if I am there with my mother, who has less tolerance for spicy food than I do.


      • Nope. The American Mistake: world = America. This is HK, >95% Chinese, with most of the remainder Filipina or Indonesian. Why should restaurants cater for the 1% of foreign barbarians who might or might not want it? No $ in it. Hey, this is the home of the Peking duck pizza + numerous other awful ‘fusion’ abominations. My daughter detests ‘fusion’ – she says give her authentic cuisine from wherever, not some ‘fusion’ crap, but she is atypical. McDonald’s in China has to accommodate Chinese tastes to survive, and consequently becomes (even more) appalling to Western tastes. Mainland Chinese who patronize McDonald’s say they do it because they want a ‘taste of America’, but they want it modified to suit Chinese taste. Same goes for pizza. Golden rule: When in HK, eat Chinese of whichever regional cuisine you prefer, or Vietnamese, or Japanese, which suits local tastes as it is + they import Japanese chefs to do the cooking and train locals in Japanese culinary traditions (+ there’s not a lot you can do to screw around with raw seafood). Never eat Chinese beef, it’s awful – Chinese consumers demand ingredients should be as fresh as possible, so they want their beef killed recently; they never got the idea that beef is a lot better after it has been hung for several days – they find that idea utterly repugnant, akin to eating rotten meat. It’s true of pork – pork spoils quickly and can easily become fatal.

        This is why the Chinese (= Han) civilization is the world’s oldest surviving civilization (aside from the written word, which is the great unifying factor of Chinese civilization – no matter which Chinese language they speak, they all read the same script) – they play a long game, endure, absorb and turn everything Chinese. They assimilated Buddhism and turned it into its Chinese form, to the extent that many Chinese forget where Buddhism came from, or never learned about it in the first place: to them Buddhism = Chinese Buddhism. They turned the beloved Buddhist ‘goddess’ Guanyin from male (the Indian Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara) to female and invented the story about who she was – a Chinese woman. The Taoists even adopted Guanyin as one of the ‘Immortals’. They turned their Mongol conquerors culturally Chinese. They adopted Qing hairstyles and clothing under severe duress, but in every other respect turned their Manchu conquerors culturally Chinese. They do it with everything, sooner or later. To an outsider, this smacks of chauvinism, or refusal or inability to accommodate diversity, but it is their strength.

        If you buy a computer here, it will be programmed in Chinese unless you tell the shop you want it programmed in English, in which case they might or might not be able to supply it. That goes even for Apple stores. Even Apple get it that this is China, not America. They had to, or face never being able to penetrate the Chinese market.


  9. Very recently, evidence has been found of rice domestication in the Amazon basin. Lots of people are very surprised. Charles C. Mann is probably not too surprised, but lots of other people are.


  10. Ed Brayton heroically keeps an eye on far-right media outlets so the rest of us don’t have to. Here are a few headlines at his “Dispatches from the Culture Wars”:
    Alex Jones and Gavin McInnes: Lesbians Have Children to Have Slaves
    Liz Crokin: The Movie Wizard of Oz Makes Kids Sex Slaves,
    Wayne Root: Roy Moore Did Nothing Wrong Because Obama and Hillary Clinton are Gay,



    More on rice domestication in the Amazon basin. Evidence of its existence was destroyed in the destruction of South American civilizations by European colonization. Unlike corn (maize), other parts of the world already had domesticated rice species, so it didn’t get exported to the rest of the world as a consequence of the Columbian Exchange, and just disappeared. Only rediscovered now by analysis of soil phytoliths.


  12. Possibly another contender for this year’s Darwin Awards; cue tasteless jokes about losing his head, etc.

    Port Moresby is desperately unsafe wrt ultra-violent crime, and that’s the ‘civilized’ capital of PNG. I once considered taking a job offer in PNG (pay was better at that time than in HK) – one of my former Australian bosses, who I consulted about it because he had worked there, warned me off it; plus I have a Chinese wife, and Papuan cannibals are reputed to have a particular taste for Chinese meat. The guy who interviewed me for the job in PNG told me I would have to speak up, as the anti-malaria medication had turned him partly deaf. On considering the collected evidence, I opted to stay in HK.

    I once interviewed a British geologist who had been working in PNG, based in Moresby, who said he was desperate to get out. When I asked why, to illustrate he told me that the friend he used to play snooker with had both of his hands chopped off with a machete. Quote: “He doesn’t play snooker any more.” Also, while I was interviewing him, he was very obviously stone cold sober, intelligent and interviewed very well, but his hands shook uncontrollably the whole time – malaria.


    “Paternal grandparental exposure to crop failure or surfeit during a childhood slow growth period and epigenetic marks on third generational growth-, glucoregulatory and stress genes.” “This latest in our series of papers describes transgenerational methylation related to mid-childhood food availability in 19th century Overkalix, Sweden. Failed vs.bountiful crops differentially influenced methylation in grandchildren of exposed paternal grandparents.”

    Whole paper is available. Not the first time that I have heard about the effects of severe malnutrition being transmitted down to the third generation. As well as the findings, which are interesting in themselves, Swedes might find some historical interest in this preprint (which could have done with some decent proof-reading/editing, but I’m a pedant – the whole point of open publication of preprints is…well, self evident). Plus note that the effects are sex-mediated – deprived males may transmit adverse effects to grandsons, while deprived females may transmit different adverse effects to granddaughters – hence reference in the quote to paternal grandparents.

    Plus the “Överkalix study” is evidently famous enough to have its own Wikipedia entry, which is also worth a quick scan to those interested. Överkalix seems to have been the ideal place for a multi-generational study, being a small, isolated community of Swedes in NE Sweden close to the border of Finland who, in the 19th Century, were surrounded by Sami and Finns. The grandchildren were dispersed all over Sweden, but could be tracked. 44 were still alive in 1995 when the follow-up documentation of mortality stopped.


  14. If you wondered why Saudi women were suddenly all permitted to drive recently, this helps to explain why. The New Boss is courting popular support from the masses. Country needs massive reform/modernization, and to reduce dependence on oil. Don’t know how this will play out re: Yemen blockade and Saudi vs Iran. Saudis have a much better air force, courtesy of America, but Iran has self-developed missiles and trumps the Saudis in every other military department, including tanks and artillery; but neither of which will do them much good if Saudis can maintain aerial supremacy with modern ground attack aircraft. But also, big powers obviously won’t just sit on their hands while the two countries duke it out.

    Reason for mentioning: what is happening in Saudi Arabia will have earth-shaking repercussions, regardless of outcome.


    • It’s in the paper, but you might need a degree in molecular biology to understand it. My daughter would get it – she has tried to explain methylation to me a couple of times, but it all went over my head.

      I think the clue is that these effects are sex-dependent – they are transmitted via environmental modifications (i.e. famine or plenty) to sperm and eggs. That is the way that ‘epigenetic’ effects can be propagated down generations. IOW, environmental factors (like severe malnutrition) induce genetic modifications in the sufferers, which are then propagated via reproduction. Mind-bending, for sure, but at least in this case it seems to have happened.

      We are not going to be able to turn ourselves into experts in the necessary fields of biological science – we can only rely on those expert commentators we trust to say whether the findings stand up to scrutiny, which seems to be the case here.

      If Razib Khan tweets a link, unless he is being satirical (often, but mostly in relation to self-evidently non-scientific dumb stuff), it means he thinks it is worth reading/taking note of, and he is an expert geneticist working in human genetics (having done his PhD research on cats, of all things, but then he’s a cat lover). I have been reading him ever since he started blogging on genetics in 2002 (at which time I outright accused him in a comment on the blog of being racist, before I had properly read myself into the subject) and I have learned to rely on his judgement (and in any case, part of my comment then was correct (but I was just being intuitive, without really knowing) and he was wrong – it is not enough to put people in racial boxes for medical purposes because we are all far more mixed than anyone then dreamed; individual genomes are needed – but 15 years ago, no one dreamed that getting everyone’s genomes would become affordable or achievable; it now is). Plus he said stuff then that he probably would not say now, or would be less certain and more nuanced – a person can learn a lot in 15 years, particularly at his relatively young age. He has conservative leanings (but does not let his political opinions intrude in his blogging on science), but he is very definitely not supportive of alt.right or Trump. And he’s brown, not white, obviously. I later compared notes with him on the racist treatment my daughter received from her kindergarten teacher, and he intimated similar experiences in his own life, noting that kindergarten and primary school teachers are frequently the transmitters of racist attitudes; plus he has frequently been targeted by white supremacists. So, racist he is not; I am satisfied about that. He would probably object to the oversimplified characterization, but I would class him generally as a fiscal conservative but social liberal, who is very pessimistic about the political divide and way things are going ‘tribal’ in America.

      But anyway, it is not for me to try to defend him; he is more than capable of doing that himself. If he tweets a paper like this without comment, I take that as a good enough indication that it is likely to be reliable and worth reading, and not ideologically influenced or pseudo-science.


      • I would dearly appreciate it if your daughter would write three sentences for us about a) whether, b) in what way, epigenetic methylation with adverse effects is likely to be an adaptive trait. Right now it looks to me like the mechanism says “So you survived a famine! Well then, let’s impair your grandchildren’s adaptive fitness!”


      • I appreciate the question, but I’m loathe to further burden her just now. She’s going through a particularly difficult period, which I can expand on privately but not here. But there’s a promising light at the end of the very dark tunnel she is in currently, and not too far ahead.

        Plus remember that ‘adaptive’ does not imply longevity; you only need to survive long enough to reproduce. Selection against a lot of things that can prove fatal does not happen if those things only manifest after peak reproductive years. So, total life span can be shortened by some genetic modification, but it is never selected against because it does not affect the ability to reproduce. I have read that M’buti Pygmies have an average lifespan of only 30 years, but they diverged early from the main human lineage (>200K ya?) and have survived without extinction ever since. And can and do reproduce with other humans perfectly successfully.


      • I’m reminded of that Biblical quote that goes something like “The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the sons, yea unto the third generation.” Substitute ‘sins’ for environmentally induced genetic modifications, and in some cases it seems to be true, while being mindful that Biblical references might not be appreciated.


      • One classic case I have seen quoted is skin cancer. Skin cancer (which can certainly prove fatal, sometimes extremely quickly in the case of melanoma) has not been selected against in populations susceptible to it because, while it might result from excessive exposure to solar radiation in early life, it generally does not manifest until someone is past their peak reproductive period (although I lost a good red-haired friend/colleague to melanoma while he was still in his 20s). I have had to have surgery to remove a squamous cell carcinoma that had grown on the back of my knee (i.e. not an obvious place wrt direct sun exposure) very close to a lymph node, which would undoubtedly have proved ultimately fatal by metastasis through my lymphatic system if it had gone untreated long enough, but it did not occur until I was well past reproducing.

        Pale skin seems to have been adaptive (so, selected for) for people moving into more northerly latitudes, plus also maybe shifting to an agricultural diet poor in Vitamin D, in order for them to continue to synthesize enough Vitamin D from exposure to sunlight; but once the adaptation was acquired, it has never been selected against because the resulting skin cancer doesn’t kill you early enough in life to affect reproduction.


    • Think of fetal alcohol syndrome, which seems relatively simple and well understood. But it turns out that alcohol consumption can not only adversely affect unborn fetuses; it can also adversely affect the quality of both sperm and eggs. So the advice seems to be that, even pre-conception, people planning on having children, both males and females, should avoid too much alcohol consumption.


      • I guess the other comment I could add is that three or four generations are not enough to determine whether a genetic change is adaptive such that it is favoured by selection or not. Selection doesn’t happen that quickly.

        It is evident that most Neanderthal alleles have been purged from the modern human genome, indicating that they were generally deleterious and therefore not favoured by selection. A small percentage, around 2%, have been retained – they could be favourable or unfavourable, depending on circumstances/environment. (Is suffering from depression in a cold northerly climate adaptive or not? What if it prompts a form of hibernation or reduced physical activity, thereby minimising exposure to the elements and aiding survival during the dark winter period? Are auto-immune diseases adaptive? Seemingly not, but a more active immune system could be protective in certain environments in relation to particular endemic diseases in those environments. Those two traits do appear to be inherited from Neanderthals in modern humans.) However, the fact that humans interbred with Neanderthals and had fertile offspring, who in turn reproduced successfully and on down to the present day, shows that although most of the Neanderthal alleles were not favoured by selection, it took multiple generations for those alleles to be purged from anatomically modern humans, so the deleterious Neanderthal alleles did not prevent reproduction multiple times.

        From a reading of the full paper, it is evident that the genetic changes induced in the male line had the effect of very substantially reducing life expectancy (by more than 20 years) down to the third generation (and possibly further, but that is when the study stopped). But dying at 60 instead of 80 is not, of itself, going to affect a person’s ability to reproduce.

        So, the way you have framed the question is not right, but it takes more than a few lines to explain why.

        A few adaptive traits have shown very strong selection – the most obvious is lactase persistence among dairying cultures, but even then, selection would have needed more than three or four generations; and for those adaptations to become fixed in those populations where lactase persistence now occurs among 100% of the population, it would have taken even longer.


    • LOL. That’s probably the most genuinely amusing Onion piece I have seen yet.

      There is a town called Derby in Western Australia, built on the shore of a deep coastal inlet called King Sound. When asked what it is like, people who are familiar with it respond: “King Sound is the arsehole of the earth, and Derby is 70 miles up it.”


    • Yeah, but who wants to live that long if you have to adopt the Amish lifestyle?

      I have seen people commenting that the Amish are out-breeding everyone else in America, but they don’t mind, because they make for inoffensive neighbours.


      • Now that the relevant gene is identified, they are working on medication that can generate the same effect as the Amish gene. I have the shadow of a chance to benefit from that, since I am not yet retired. I just spoke to a
        93-yearr-old friend of my late mother. Old age sucks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “Old age sucks.”

        It certainly can, from what I have seen.

        I don’t often quote my mother, for the reason that much of what she said was not quotable, but there are a few things she said that made sense. She died in her sleep when she was 91. We should all be so fortunate. But in the years leading up to her death, she often remarked on how unenjoyable life was for her in advanced old age and would say “You can live too long.”

        I think she was right about that. Beyond a certain point, quality of life matters more than quantity. My father decided that when he refused medical treatment that would have prolonged his life by months, not years.

        My view does not seem to be a popularly held one, but I believe that medically assisted suicide should be available as an option, not just for people who are in constant unbearable pain, but for all people who consider that they have lived long enough and that it is time to go. My mother often asked me if I could suggest a painless way she could commit suicide. I couldn’t – not one she would regard as ‘acceptable’. It was not death she was afraid of, it was the process. In the end, she needn’t have worried; the evidence suggests she was not even conscious or aware that it happened.

        With ageing populations, this might have to warrant more serious consideration. When there are far more advanced geriatrics than there are people to provide the support services they need, increasing numbers of them might decide they want a painless, dignified end to a life they consider has been long enough.


      • OTOH, if they can produce a medication that prolongs useful life; healthy, enjoyable-enough life, then that would be really something. Humans generally appear to have a drive to feel useful; most people choose to work if they can because they want to. Multiple studies have shown that what people do is more important to them than how much they earn by doing it. (This is obviously a generalization – societies have any number of parasites who do non-useful things or even damaging things for the sake of material gain, or worse – to gain power over other people.)


      • I’ve seen both my father and my MIL live way beyond the ability to enjoy life, dying at 92 and 99 respectively, in both cases a decade after they had been physically comfortable in my father’s case knowing he was losing his mental capacity, and he had been a man who lived largely in his mind. I don’t think anyone should have to go through what they did, I’ve had dogs I put down in similar condition and had I not done so I would have been being cruel. I don’t see why we can’t offer that kindness to our own species. So I agree with you that medically assisted suicide should be available to all not just those in pain or those who are going to die within the next six months anyway (which seems to be the most common legislative proposal). I have chronic pain and while it is sort of under control at the moment eventually I’m going to run out of stronger opioids to move up to and I really do not want to have to go one living once that has happened, but I may well want to die long before then. The medications that are available to help control pain all have an impact on my ablity to think and so to do the things I I enjoy, once I can no longer enjoy anything I don’t think I want to stay alive.


      • Sorry to hear it, Jazz. But I tend to agree — though speaking from a position of enviable health. We shouldn’t put old folks through stuff against their will that we won’t put our pets through.


  15. OK, who knew about Cocolitzli? Sounds nasty. So, it wasn’t only introduced diseases that were the proximal cause of the massive Native American die-offs associated with European exploration and invasion of the Americas. Cocolitzli was evidently endemic to the Americas, or part of them. A lot of people, John Hawks included, spell it wrongly as Cocolitzi. It’s Cocolitzli. Missing the second ‘l’ can affect search results.

    I recently watched a two part series on Netflix called Saints and Strangers, about the founding of the New Plymouth settlement by the Pilgrim Fathers and others who sailed on the Mayflower. It was patchy; OK in parts, not in others, but mercifully pretty short. But in it they introduce the character called Squanto (real historical person Tisquantum, a Native American who was captured by an Englishman and sold to the Spanish as a slave; escaped from his captors and somehow made his way from Spain to England, where he learned to speak English, and from there he was sent to Newfoundland, where another Englishman took him back to where he came from, Cape Cod Bay, only to find that while he was away most of his tribe had died from disease). It was Squanto who taught native agricultural methods to the English settlers, and acted as interpreter and intermediary between the settlers and the local Native Americans among whom he had been living, possibly as a captive. Squanto some time (seemingly about 20 months later) subsequently suddenly took seriously ill, and died after several days. In the series, he announces that he is suffering from the “Indian fever” and that he is dying; he dies shortly afterwards. At the time of watching, I had no clue what “Indian fever” might refer to and concluded that he must have contracted an introduced European disease, despite having survived his time in Spain, England and wherever else he had been, apparently while not contracting anything potentially fatal.

    So now I am wondering if “Indian fever” was Cocolitzli, or some similar endemic disease. Wrong geography, I know.


    • It’s unclear whether rodent hosts of cocolitzli could have made the migration from the central plateau of Mexico to New England. The climates of the two regions were not that different (due to the altitude, the central plateau of Mexico is much cooler than the surrounding lowlands), but any direct route between them would pass through an area with a much warmer climate–e.g., southern Texas, which to this day remains sparsely populated. Furthermore, there were many different Eurasian diseases that affected indigenous Americans, so it’s hard to pin down a single culprit for “Indian fever”, if there even is a single culprit.

      The high population of central Mexico at the time (Mexico had more people than all of Europe) plus the ecological shifts of the Cortez conquests make the region a likely spot for an emerging disease. The transmission pattern is similar to hantavirus, but the lack of hantavirus in the region today is a problem for that hypothesis. But perhaps the biggest problem with the emerging disease paradigm here is that Europeans were not affected–the authors handwave that objection away by noting that Europeans would have had superior status that made them less likely to be in contact with rodents, but I am skeptical of that explanation.


    • John Hawks makes reference to Machupo virus, a much more recent discovery which is endemic to Bolivia and sounds similar – infection by rodent vectors (humans accidentally consuming rodent feces when they contaminate grain stores or other food stores), with no human to human transmission.

      So, I was wondering whether there was a similar virus lurking in North America, in some animal reservoir. Rodents act as reservoirs for Yersinia pestis, from which occasional break-outs still occur. The Black Death never went away, it has just been hiding, among Central Asian steppe marmots, among other rodent species (prairie dogs in North America). It’s one of the factors that makes me suspect that a virulent strain of Y. pestis might have facilitated the invasion of Eastern and Northern Europe by steppe herders, with pretty high population replacement.

      Also, it seems some Europeans did get infected with Cocolitzli, but just a lot less, maybe just because of lack of contact with the infectious agent; plus the Native populations were already obviously heavily stressed and therefore maybe more susceptible. Or possibly more susceptible genetically.

      Evidently people who contract(ed) Cocolitzli or Machupo virus and survived became immune thereafter, but the mortality rate was very high, as these things go – as high as 30% for Machupo virus in some cases. The problem with Cocolitzli is that it disappeared before it could be evaluated by modern medicine, so it’s a matter of guessing from contemporary accounts of varying degrees of reliability. But the reported symptoms of both Cocolitzli and Machupo virus don’t match any of the usual suspects among the European diseases. And the Native Americans had a specific word for Cocolitzli, so it seems to have been something they already knew about; they used different words to refer to smallpox and other introduced European diseases. We can’t know if there were epidemics of Cocolizli that occurred prior to the arrival of Europeans, maybe on a much smaller scale, but Machupo virus is clearly endemic, not introduced. Europeans might have contributed to the much greater spread of Cocolizli by facilitating long distance transport – well, that seems to be one theory.


  16. SSM is a slam dunk in Oz, BTW. The people have spoken (62% in favour), and most politicians in Canberra say they support it, or will respect the expressed wish of the people (which means they’ll support it, without actually expressing their own opinion about it).

    Most strongly against – socially conservative low SES ethnic groups in western Sydney (the refugee and migrant suburbs). No surprise there.

    The thing to watch now is what goes into the fine print of the bill that goes to Parliament – people should not underestimate the ability of snakes like Tony Abbott to sabotage the thing by getting wording inserted which will effectively derail the process, or at least make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible. Currently he’s like a bear with a sore head about the Yes vote, so he’s going to try something.

    Don’t expect to see this happening in HK for a long time. Looong long time. Not with anti-gay activists like Joshua Wong’s family around and so vocal + traditionally socially conservative Chinese attitudes. HK has won the competition to stage the 2018 Gay Games, but that was a private endeavor; the Government simply ‘noted’ it noncommittally – meaning they are not too happy, but won’t actually try to stop it; the poker-faced Police will dutifully make the necessary arrangements to facilitate. Don’t expect to see rainbow flags flying from Government buildings. Won’t happen.

    When I first came to HK, I picked up that the colloquial Cantonese expression for male homosexuality was “the English disease” – caused me much hilarity at the expense of my English colleagues. The popular view that it was somehow an ‘imported’ phenomenon to be blamed on the British revealed a lamentable lack of local people’s familiarity with their own classical literature, but I wasn’t going to try to enlighten them. Not my business, not my problem, plus I was too busy using it to poke fun at my English colleagues, who greatly outnumbered me X:1 and routinely gave me hell without provocation, just for being Australian/colonial/descendant of convicts (actually not)/better at cricket/whatever. So, of course, being Australian, I used it to deliberately provoke them.

    The HK Cricket Club, which I joined when my wife was pregnant so that my daughter would have a big flat patch of nice grass to run around on when cricketers were not cluttering it up: (1) had a quota on the maximum number of Chinese permitted to join, and (2) had a quota on the maximum number of Australians permitted to join. I’m not kidding. Being the contrary person I am, I did end up representing/playing sport for the HKCC – tennis.


  17. ” We cannot be selective about exposing abusers and holding them to account”
    Damn right. This should be a no-brainer.
    — — — — —
    A Christian “family values” Republican lawmaker has stepped down from his post in Ohio’s state House over revelations that he engaged in “inappropriate conduct” (f*ing) with another man at his legislative office
    Notice that no Republican is defeinding him. Because consentual gay sex is soo much worse than a 30-year old hitting on sixteen-year-old girls.


    • Getting very sick of the word ‘tryst’. What is it with writers? Once they get hold of a word, they shake it like a terrier with a dead rat. People are forever going on about ‘trysts’ (def. private romantic rendezvous) between Neanderthals and Homo saps. What, it never occurred to them that a Neanderthal male ambushing and forcibly raping a female Homo sap. might not be a likely scenario? Nah, must have been interspecific lurve – so much more titillating to write about than rape; nothing romantic or vicariously exciting about that; or maybe it’s a not OK thing to suggest might have occurred. Hell, rape is hardly a modern human invention – orang utans do it. Even John Hawks falls into this trap.


  18. Rape was in all likelihood a far less common form of genetic mixing than consensual lurve. A man is way more likely to have any offspring, and successful offspring, if he comes to a long-term understanding with a woman. Most one-nighters don’t result in conception.


    • But some do. It does happen, maybe not that often, but often enough for the issue of women wanting to abort pregnancies resulting from one-off rapes to be a common point of disagreement between right-to-lifers and their ideological opponents.

      It was frequent behaviour among Aboriginal people for males to abduct females from other groups and hold them against their will; often, the women would finally grab their chance to escape and make their way back to their own groups. Abduction of females also happens among Amazon tribes. Same deal.

      If you want to make the case for long term romantic attachments between Neanderthals and modern humans, you need to think through the scenarios for how this would happen. I have, and none seem that likely to me. I don’t think it should just be the default assumption, given that we can examine known, well documented behaviour among modern human groups where female abduction was, and in some cases still is, very common. A Neanderthal and a modern human forming a long term liaison and striking out on their own as a solitary couple would be a very risky thing for them to do in a Pleistocene environment, and what happens to the kids? So that means a modern woman joining a Neanderthal family group (which then goes extinct), or a Neanderthal male being accepted into a modern human group – not impossible, maybe, but it doesn’t seem like the most plausible scenario to me.


    • I have to agree with John’s take here. Rape is not always a one-off thing. All too often a case of sexual abuse comes to light because the victim got pregnant, and in cases where the male has repeated access to the female (and does not take precautions), the probability that the victim eventually becomes pregnant approaches 1. Other cases exist where the victim was found many years later, and turned out to have had the abuser’s child.

      Also, as any halfway decent sex education program (and many that are not decent) will point out, the woman can get pregnant the first time. A one-off rapist usually won’t care if she does.


  19. I first watched the 1973 film Mean Streets when I was very young, and didn’t think much of it. Robert de Niro’s character was intensely irritating, but then he was meant to be, so I could appreciate de Niro’s acting performance, but otherwise the film left me cold.

    But it has been so greatly lauded that I figured I must have missed something first time around, so recently I watched it again. Nope, it still left me cold. I don’t see that it is the great piece of cinema that everyone has said it was. What did I miss?


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