4 October 2013


The bees are dying. They’ve died off before, but not in my lifetime. As far as we know, their deaths aren’t related to climate change, but it feels like that. It feels like an intimation of the sadness I felt when I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and realised all the animals had died.

The name for the bees dying is ‘Colony Collapse Disorder.’ In the past it has had better names. ‘Disappearing disease’ and ‘Spring dwindle’ are two of the neater ones. The current dying began in 2006 and we have yet to ascertain the cause. Probable contenders in descending order of likelihood are:

Neonicotinoids – these are a class of insecticide derived from, or chemically similar to, nicotine. They are useful in that they affect insects more than mammals, and because they can be applied to seeds and from there, provide protection to the whole plant, especially from sap-sucking insects. They are relatively new and their rise in agriculture coincides with the death of the bees, so they are a prime suspect. George Monbiot, an environmentalist whom I greatly admire, points the bone squarely in their direction. A more thoughtful view is taken by the American apiarist and biologist Randy Oliver, who keeps abreast of the scientific literature covering neonicotinoids and their effect on bees. He points out that there seems to be little correlation between the use of these chemicals and Colony Collapse Disorder, although more study needs to be undertaken on how long they linger in the soil, their effects when mixed with other chemicals, particularly fungicides, and their real-world application (when used correctly they seem to have a negligible effect on bees, when used heavily in home and municipal contexts they can cause harm, especially to waterways).

Pathogens – a high percentage of beehives can become infested with the Varroa destructor mite, which weakens bees by sucking their equivalent of blood. The mite can also carry viruses such as ‘deformed wing virus’ and ‘Israeli acute paralysis virus.’ The fungus Nosema is also thought to be a likely culprit in many hives collapsing.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup – is there anything it can’t do? Bees are often fed this syrup in winter when there are few natural sources of nectar. Such a bland diet may weaken their immune system. This may be exacerbated by bees feeding on a monoculture crop during Spring and Summer.

Apiculture – transporting a hive from one area to another can make it difficult for bees to find their way home; it can also spread the pathogens mentioned above. Other apicultural practices being touted as possible factors leading to CCD include the artificial control of queen bees, including selecting bees for breeding based on docility (and the concurrent lack of genetic diversity this has brought to bee populations); the use of antibiotics; the selection of which larva is to be fed royal jelly; introducing a new queen every two years (without interference a queen would normally reign for five or six); excluding the queen from some areas of the hive and clipping the queen’s wings. Lastly, the provision of such infrastructure as combs, wax sheets and ventilation, all of which can be taken care of by the hive itself.

Most likely Colony Collapse Disorder arises from a combination of all of the factors listed above, probably interacting in complex feedback loops. Although pointing at a single cause, for example neonicotinoids, is both emotionally satisfying and automatically provides a simple solution, it does belittle the effort being put in on an international level to pin down the causes of CCD and combat them. Bees are vital to our food supply. They don’t just provide honey for your toast, they provide free pollination to a vast array of crops. So, although “ban neonicotinoids” is a catchy slogan you may encounter over the coming years, and may prove to actually be the solution, bear in mind too that these chemicals have been banned already in France with no discernible effect. As yet there has been no reporting of CCD in Australia despite our use of neonicotinoids.

A summation? There appears to be no simple cause or solution for CCD. A combination of better beekeeping practices and more responsible use of pesticides would seem to be a good start. Until the crisis is resolved take a moment, next time you pass a plant covered in flowers, to appreciate the bees fuzzing its margins, their attention to each bloom, their tiny perfection. 

30 July 2013

Solar Mathletics

A 1.5kW solar photovoltaic system in Melbourne is supposed to generate an average of 5.4kWh/day. Does it?

My 1.5kW solar PV system has, as of today, generated 4079kWh of electricity during the 9039 hours it’s been in operation. That’s 4MWh!

I’m a little stupid, so I used this table to figure out that the average day length in Melbourne is 12.10785 hours. Then I realised the average day length anywhere on the planet will be the same over a whole year – that is, 12 hours. That either means the table, Melbourne, or celestial mechanics are wrong. Possibly all three.

So, the 9039 hours my PV system has been operating is equivalent to 753.25 days.

If an average 1.5kW PV system is supposed to generate 5.4kWh/day then mine should have generated 4067.55kWh.

Only 11.45kWh off. That’s probably due to the strange error in the solar system, and/or Melbourne’s place in it, identified earlier.

7 July 2013

Miru Miru Mega Yokunaru Magic Eye

Remember Magic Eye ™? Does it even need a ™? It certainly makes the question mark look awkward. Anyway, back when grunge and Hypercolor™ were cutting edge Magic Eye books spent a total of more than a year and a half on the New York Times Bestseller List. It was a simpler time, where staring at a nonsensical pattern for minutes at a time in order to perceive a poor quality 3D image was seen as a bit of a laugh. Now that we have computers you can build them yourself (or at least get a website to build one for you), so I thought I’d update them for the Age of Terror:

6 July 2013

How Long Till I Get Some Fucking Marmite?

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock I’ll summarise the situation:
February 22, 2011: the Christchurch Earthquake kills 185 people and destroys large areas of the city – the damage compounded by aftershocks in the coming months.
November 2011: Sanitarium shuts down production of Marmite at its Christchurch factory… the only source of Marmite in the entire world.
March 16, 2012: I buy one of the last remaining jars of Marmite from New Zealand eBay before Marmageddon.
February 18, 2013: I run out of Marmite
March 20, 2013 – Marmite production starts up again

Today, 3 and a half months later, there’s still no Marmite on supermarket shelves. Sanitarium have indicated they wish to stock the product in New Zealand before beginning export. Horrifyingly, I watched this video where, behind the cheesy comedy, you can see the new plant in action. It seems to produce a 250g jar of Marmite every 2 seconds, or 30 per hour. From this we can start to see the true scale of the problem:

Population of New Zealand: 4,468,200
Weeks that plant has been in operation: call it 16
Worst case scenario - plant operates an hour a day on weekdays: 1 jar of Marmite for every 31 New Zealanders.
Best case scenario – plant operates 24 hours a day, 7 days week: at least 1 jar for every New Zealander
Probable scenario – plant operates for 8 hours per day on weekdays: another 46 weeks until every New Zealander has a jar and they can start exporting some to Australia.

Forty-six weeks! And this assumes that the filthy Kiwis are spreading the stuff abstemiously! What if they’re eating it by the spoonful? Slathering it all over their obnoxious, sweaty selves and then licking it off one another with craven delight? If this is the case there might never be enough to satiate their greed.

The solution? I propose we send the Australian Navy to annex Christchurch and divert all the Marmite that is being produced to Australia. Plausibly we could also send raiding parties into the surrounding countryside to secure even more of the delicious spread. If nothing else, now that Afghanistan is a peaceful democracy, it will give our armed forces something to do (other than demeaning homosexuals in between bouts of sodomy/hazing-the-new-guy).

I believe we have no other option.

23 March 2013

Freezing to Death in a Gamma Garden

Gerry leaned against the binnacle and bit into the nectarine. Juice dribbled down his chin and he sucked frantically at the flesh of the fruit to avoid losing any more.
“Where on Earth did you find that?” asked the Berg.
“Below decks,” said Gerry, slurping greedily. “There’s a whole box of them.”
“But you’ve been eating nothing but pemmican for nearly two months now.”
“I must have missed them. Nooks and crannies down there. Yesterday I found a book of crosswords.”
The Berg cracked alarmingly. It was a sunny day and light blared back from its surface and hurt Gerry’s eyes.
Gerry shrugged and continued savouring the nectarine.
“They’re radioactive you know.”
Gerry spat the stone noisily overboard. “Bullshit.”
“Well, not strictly radioactive, but bred with the aid of radiation.”
Gerry, who had been about to go down to get another one, turned back. “Really?”
“Really. After World War Two everyone was trying to find peaceful uses for atomic energy. Just using it to vaporise Japanese people was giving it a bad name. They made atomic gardens to try and harness its mutagenic properties.”
“Wasn’t this a Simpsons episode?”
The Berg trickled furiously. The sunshine had made its whole surface run with meltwater.
“Don’t be facetious. It’s entirely true. They set up circular fields with a radioactive slug, cobalt-60 or something equally nasty, tied to a pole in the middle. The idea was you planted a wedge of a particular crop and let the radiation work its mutation magic. Close to the centre everything just died. Further back though you’d get weird effects like giant fruit or strangely coloured leaves and flowers.”
“Actually, I’m finding it distinctly warm,” said the Berg.
“You’re very grumpy today. So what happened with the mutant plants? And how did they harvest this stuff?”
“The pole with the radiation source could be retracted into the ground, then workers would come in to examine what had happened to the plants.”
“Voila, radioactive nectarines.”
“Actually, peach trees mutated by radiation whose progeny are what, today, we know as the nectarine.”
“I’ll be damned. Any other successes?”
“Mint oil.”
“Mint oil?”
“Mint is particularly susceptible to a particular fungal wilt. The Americans irradiated hundreds of thousands of shoots and then planted them in wilt-infested fields. The resulting wilt-resistant cultivar, Todd’s Mitcham as I believe it’s called, is now the standard crop used in the world’s mint oil industry. You brushed your teeth with some this morning.”
“I ate the last of the toothpaste six weeks ago.”
“You’re going to wish you hadn’t when it comes time to get all those bits of nectarine out of your teeth.”
“Very funny. So, nectarines, mint oil… they give it up after that?”
“Oh, it’s still happening. Not as popular as back in the ‘60s and ‘70s but they still use it to try and breed new plant varieties today. The last success we know of was the ‘Rio Star’ – a particularly red variety of grapefruit.”
“That we know of?”
“It’s all very hush hush. Genetic engineering. Radioactive mutants. You know – things you don’t want associated with your product.”
“So how do you know about it?” asked Gerry, turning to head below deck again. The sun had moved and he was in the Berg’s shadow. When he tried to lick some of the nectarine juice from his beard it was already starting to freeze.
“A hippy who was down here in 1976 told me. They parked their boat alongside me for a few days. He used to like to come and and talk to me.”
“Talk to you? You’re an iceberg.”
“He was taking a lot of acid.”


18 February 2013

Sodom and Gomorrah

On Thursday afternoon, by an incredible coincidence, I finished two very long books that I have been reading for a very long time. They are Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (or ‘In Search of Lost Time’) and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Proust’s is considered one of the greatest works of modern literature; Jordan’s a great work of fantasy. In nearly every respect they are the total opposite of one another. In one respect though, they are the same – length.
Oh, and they both have the word ‘time’ in their titles.

I started reading The Wheel of Time (or WoT as its hoards of devotees call it) when it came out in 1990, twenty-three fucking years ago. Robert Jordan actually died in 2007 and they had to get another guy to finish it, which he did in January this year. It ran to 14 volumes and a touch over 4 million words. In contrast, In Search of Lost Time clocks up only 1.2 million (War and Peace, for comparison, totals 587,000) across a mere seven volumes. Strangely, I read the first volume, Swann’s Way at university, counted myself lucky that was all I had to persevere through, had it itch at me for a while, then started the whole thing again in around 2008.

So, were they any good? They were, but they’re so different I can make no real comparison between them. ‘Exile on Main Street’ compared with Beethoven’s Ninth? ‘Terminator’ compared to Kieslowski’s ‘Blue?’ Jordan himself was an Episcopalian nuclear engineer who served two tours of Vietnam as a helicopter gunner (aside: Michael Herr to a door gunner in Dispatches: “How do you kill women and children?” Answer: “Just don’t lead ‘em so much”). Proust was an asthmatic social climber who spent the last three years of his life confined to his cork-lined bedroom.

The Wheel of Time was epic fantasy of a sort I don’t really read any more – I barely read fantasy at all these days. It was done very well with a big cast of nicely drawn characters, an interesting world, neat descriptions of sword fighting, a novel conception of magic and a satisfying resolution. There was a certain amount of disconnect as the years between each book meant that I started each one with the plot for the previous volume as a dim memory. I do remember that some of the latter ones penned by Jordan, say volumes 8-10, were pretty dull, and having a new author brought in after Jordan died (possibly from RSI after all that typing?) was a definite breath of fresh air to get the whole thing moving and finished.

In Search of Lost Time was vast and infrequently rewarding. It forced me to read slowly and carefully due to its dense, multiply compounded sentences, sometimes running to more than a page. It drew me in with accessible portraits of, and ruminations on, obsessive love, then pushed me away with the tedious minutiae at play between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie at the world’s longest and most boring dinner party. It left me with an impression of Proust as an expert on memory (and what a fantastic thing on which to be an expert), modestly possessing a huge vocabulary, preoccupied with class and with homosexuality (or ‘inversion’ as he calls it), a pettily jealous mummy’s boy, a tender child filled with love for his grandmother, and someone deeply affected by flowers, particularly hawthorn blossom.

So, let me cheerfully roll out the usual clichés regarding high and low culture. The Wheel of Time was a plot-driven, fun read populated by shallow characters and showing a shallow conception of the world. In Search of Lost Time was disdainful of plot; a difficult book populated by multifaceted characters and displaying an almost painful engagement with existence. I mentioned before that besides being long they also have the word ‘time’ in their titles. A good summation then is the thesis put forward by each about the nature of time:

The Wheel of Time: ages come and pass, history occurs in cycles.

In Search of Lost Time: people change so radically from day to day and throughout their lives that there is no consistent ‘person’ left by the passage of time and the process of forgetting. This is only counteracted occasionally when some chance moment throws us back to the memory of an earlier time in our lives – this gives birth to a new being who briefly exists outside time who can look at the past and the present simultaneously from an atemporal perspective.  

2 February 2013

Culinary Nostalgia

Back in the year 2000 I lived with Tim Brennan and Conor Grogan in a filthy share house in Thornbury. None of us could cook, but I was still taken aback one evening when Tim served us up one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten. Afterwards, in a spirit of horrified awe, I wrote down the recipe. For years I thought I’d lost it, but this morning, cleaning out some old boxes I found the recipe for….

Tim’s Terrible Tea

 1 – Boil potato and pumpkin till soft, mash, mix with raw onion and whole garlic cloves then press into base of casserole dish.
2 – Top with cauliflower and mushroom.
3 – Sprinkle with pumpkin seeds, linseed, pepper, garam masala and cardamom seed.
4 – Make dodgy vegetarian ‘white sauce’ by heating soy milk and adding cornflour till you achieve a lumpy liquid. Pour over vegetables.
5 – Daub with tomato paste and cover with strange chocolate coloured yoghurt you keep in the fridge.
6 – Bake in a hot oven until the top is black and the vegetables are hot, but have not begun to cook.
7 – Serve.