A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

A Sturm's Eye View

A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.

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Monday 8 January 2001

Today I had no Internet connectivity. Well, that's not completely true because I have an emergency backup account. And to get on at the lowest cost, extra download time costs an arm and a leg, so I use it only for email. Usually, I write from what inspires me in my day to day activity. If there's nothing particular at the surface of my mind, I browse the Internet until something stimulates a new strain of thought.

Thought for the day:

When I am abroad, I always make it a rule to never criticize or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home.

Winston Churchill


Tuesday 9 January 2001

I was busy working on The House of Steel. The angle grinder I was to be lent never arrived, so I cut several metres of 16 mm threaded rod into 250 mm lengths. There were some 64 lengths and that equates to cutting through about a metre of 1 cm thick steel. It took a while.

The framing timber has arrived (at last) and from tomorrow onwards The House of Steel is Priority One. The timber for the house cost $A6,000. When I first arrived in Tasmania (1971), I lived on Bathurst Street in West Hobart, some five minutes walk from the city centre. Two nearby neighbours who also recently moved there became good friends. One had just paid $A4,000 dollars for her house and the other $A8,000 for his. I remember the latter telling me that the first computer for less than $A20,000 had recently become available. How times change!

Thought for the day:

To act and act wisely when the time for action comes, to wait and wait patiently when it is time for repose, put man in accord with the rising and falling tides (of affairs), so that with nature and law at his back, and truth and beneficence as his beacon light, he may accomplish wonders. Ignorance of this law results in periods of unreasoning enthusiasm on the one hand, and depression on the other. Man thus becomes the victim of the tides when he should be their Master.

Madame Blavatsky


Wednesday 10 January 2001

There's a House of Steel update. I have some new material for Franklin and Friends, too, but that will have to wait until I have time.

Regular readers may recall that I mentored a chef who was permanently injured in a kitchen accident into the computer industry. Gary Dupree now has a small and steadily growing business repairing computers and solving software problems. His injury only prevents the sustained physical effort of the full working week of an active chef and there's a chance that several years of due care could see a return to active duty as it were. But of course he's now hooked on another fascinating occupation.

It's interesting that he is building his business mainly by word of mouth and frequently by succeeding where others have failed to fix a problem. The computer industry is still too full of cowboys and ladmins. 

I was given a computer to repair by a client/friend and couldn't refuse. While I know the basics of hardware troubleshooting, I am far from an expert and it was a great relief to be able to call in the debt with Gary. He's going to fix it. When the machine arrived, it blue screened when Win98 launched the desktop. Easy peasy, I thought and reinstalled Win98. Only problem is, it now goes direct from the splash screen to the "It's now safe to turn off your computer" screen! I know it's not memory as I replaced a stick of defective generic RAM with a stick of quality RAM a few weeks ago. It's a relief that this is no longer on my to-do list!

Congratulations to Gary as well for being approved by his bank for the loan to purchase a house. Much bigger than the apartment he lives in and the repayments less than rental.

Karl Popper defined scientific theories as those that can be falsified by experiment. For instance, I can have a theory that the universe began with a big bang 15 billion years ago. Since I cannot devise an experiment where this could be proven untrue, it properly belongs in the realm of metaphysics along with arguments about the existence/non-existence of God. I could have a theory that the temperature of wood fires never exceed the temperature of boiling water. It's quite easy to set up an experiment that falsifies this theory by demonstrating that wood fires always exceed the temperature of boiling water. The theory was wrong, but the fact that an experiment could be devised to demonstrate its falsehood means it was in the realm of science.

Scientific theories are provisional truths when experiments devised to falsify them have so far failed.

One collection of scientific theories that are often taken to be true come under the umbrella of global warming. Here's a collation of the results of 28 scientific experiments that falsify global warming.

Thought for the day:

A faithful friend is a strong defence: and he that hath found one hath found a treasure.

The Bible


Thursday 11 January 2001

I had some correspondence with Jerry Pournelle on homeopathy:

Karl Lembke wrote:

"It just occurred to me, in a moment of putridity...

We've been hearing all about hexavalent chromium in the water supply. The concentration of the stuff in the water DWP serves is less than ten parts per billion. At this level, we're actually drinking a homeopathic dose of the stuff, which should actually (according to homeopathic theory) cure diseases!

Maybe the Department of Water and Power should charge extra for this service..."

And you replied:

"I LOVE IT!!!"

And so did I until I thought about it. Homeopathic dilutions are accompanied by a process called succussion. The material to be prepared is shaken rhythmically with the water using a figure eight motion for a short period of time. Note that the material does not have to be soluble in water and that the material taken to the next dilution is the water. Thus it may take far fewer dilutions to reach the less than one molecule level. Each dilution is succussed, and it's the succussion that is critical in the manufacture of homeopathic medicines. The theory is that the more dilute, the more potent the homeopathic drug.

When I was taught this, the trainer commented that I had the perfect rhythm when succussing and that obviously I had been taught in ancient Egypt!

BTW, I have used homeopathic remedies to great effect on a number of occasions, including treating warts on goats' udders. The goats assured me that it couldn't possibly be the placebo effect as they were unable to read the label on the bottle. They also told me that they were working on a better explanation for the effectiveness of homeopathy. One that was more like goat sh*t than bull sh*t :-)

Jonathan Sturm

Every now and then I hear stories of homeopathic remedies working with animals, but I do not think I have seen anything but stories: that is, I am unaware of any repeatable science on homeopathy and animals. I am prepared to believe there are many strange things in our universe, but I tend to side with science when there is real science to side with... [JEP]

Of course I side with science when there's real science to deal with too. The problem is that some areas remain uninvestigated by science because they are "obviously" not worth investigating, challenge the existing orthodoxy, or don't produce the kind of results that end up with a sellable product for the funders of that research. I found this to be particularly so in agriculture.

For example, there's a subset of organic farming called Bio Dynamics, originally developed by the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. It has aspects of homeopathy and astrology. Therefore, it's "obviously" junk science. Several Bio Dynamic practitioners have been scientists, notably the German chemist, Maria Thun. And there are endless reams of data collected by these scientists over many years in the best scientific tradition: extremely boring reading for the most part.

Of course this research is rejected as science by mainstream agricultural scientists. The Bio Dynamic researchers are obviously biased and find what they expect to find. When I tried a Bio Dynamic treatment for my pasture, I had no particular bias; I was just curious. Over a period of several years, the topsoil depth increased by a significant amount (1-200%) depending on the original depth. The amount of physical material put on the paddock was an ounce per acre of specially processed cowshit. Not enough to properly account for the structural change in the soil.

Nor is it enough to explain the fact that the amount of available phosphorus in that soil is several times that of the neighbouring paddock that gets topdressed with superphosphate every second year. Because there are no proper controls and no proper replications, this is completely unscientific. Of course the many thousands of Bio Dynamic farmers worldwide don't give a hoot. They are selling their crops and making a living just as their "scientific" counterparts do. And they rarely lose a cow to disease. Conventional dairy farmers are told that stock losses of as much as 20% per annum are perfectly acceptable.

Thought for the day:

Research is subordinated (not to a long-term social benefit) but to an immediate commercial profit. Currently, disease (not health) is one of the major sources of profit for the pharmaceutical industry, and the doctors are willing agents of those profits.

Walter Modell


Friday 12 January 2001

My interest in alternative farming originated when we moved onto our farm back in 1982. It took every last dollar from the bank. So, when I started a vegetable garden, I gathered cowshit that the neighbours cattle had dropped rather than purchasing artificial fertiliser. That year, the neighbours had a garden quite close to mine, just over the boundary fence. One day, they were harvesting peas and I jumped over the fence for a chat and helped them pick their peas, as one does. And also, I popped some freshly shelled peas into my mouth, as one always does when picking peas. But these peas were tasteless compared to those I had been munching that morning in my own garden.

I asked what variety of peas they were. Greenfeast, the same as I was growing. So I asked where they purchased the seed. Roberts, the same place I got mine. Hmmmm! "What did you manure them with?" was the final question. "8:4:10, same as we use on the orchard" was the reply. Aha!

Of course, a subjective taste experience is not scientific, so I took my investigations further. There was a strong financial incentive for this. As a marketdroid I knew that some people at least would be prepared to pay a premium for the impressive quality I had detected in the organically grown peas. Back then, there was no established market for organic produce and the establishment of that market is a story for another day. What I want to pursue today is a story about science.

When I first contacted practitioners of the muck and mystery school, I found little interest in science. Mostly, organic protagonists had come to be so through ill-health "caused" by agricultural chemicals and better health "caused" by eating food that was grown without agricultural chemicals. There was little or no interest in searching for why this was so. Talking to agricultural scientists was little help; they were mostly dismissive of the claims made by organic practitioners. Either those practitioners were lying or they were unprofitable. If the wilder claims of the agricultural scientists were to be believed, the result of not using agricultural chemicals would be mass starvation. Since agricultural chemicals did not come into widespread use until after the 1930s, it wasn't too difficult to find living people who could remember no such thing. The 1930s problem was overproduction of agricultural produce, not starvation!

Nevertheless, it was entirely possible that the claims of dramatic yield increases were true and that organic production could no longer compete. But it was far from clear that this was true. Neither side in the debate seemed to have any real evidence for their claims. So I decided to do my own research. This wasn't "proper" research in the scientific sense with replications and controls. For my marketdroid purposes, all I needed to do was:

What I didn't need to do was establish whether food could be grown without chemical inputs. History clearly showed that food surpluses could readily be generated without them.

Finding a market proved the most difficult and I will write about that on another occasion. The big surprise came from measuring my crop yields. There were reams of data available about crop yields from conventional agriculture and all I had to do was compare mine to what would be expected if I were using the same techniques. My yields for individual crops were at worst the same, but usually significantly better. In one instance, several times better! Where was the much vaunted improved efficiency of agricultural chemical use?

The ag scientists told me that labour, organic fertiliser and pesticide costs were much higher than for artificial fertiliser and that my higher yields generated insufficient income to justify the higher input costs. The higher labour cost I could believe, but the latter two claims could not be sustained. My fertiliser was chicken deep litter, a mixture of chicken shit and sawdust, the "waste" product of rearing chickens for meat. It was the lowest cost source of nitrogen, the major limiting factor for crop yields. The other important crop nutrients, phosphorus, potassium, calcium etc came with it for free! 

The higher cost of pest control claim took a lot more investigation to disprove. On the surface, the higher cost of organic pesticides: pyrethrum, Dipel, rotenone and so forth. But did that equate with higher control costs? I will take cabbage as an example as it is susceptible to two main groups of pests, caterpillars (leaf chewers) and aphids (sap suckers). The organic control for caterpillars is a bacterium, bacillus Thuringiensis var Berliner (BT). It is a stomach poison and upon ingestion, the caterpillar immediately ceases to eat and subsequently slowly starves to death. Unlike the organophosphate pesticides that need to be reapplied for each invasion of the pest, BT is a living organism capable of reproducing to infect any fresh invaders and under ideal conditions will happily do so. Under less than ideal circumstances, you need to apply more BT. But since it is a living organism, you don't need to purchase more; you can grow it for yourself. Either by putting some BT in pasteurised milk for a few days (unpasteurised milk contains bacterial growth inhibitors, which is why the bacteria count is much higher than fresh untreated cowjuice) or by putting a few infected caterpillars in a kitchen blender and spraying diluted caterpillar on the crop. In practice, you don't even need to start with commercial BT. Just grinding up a sufficient number of caterpillars regardless of their health status works just fine. The cost is way below organophosphates, nor do you need an expensive space suit when you apply it.

The aphid issue is even more interesting. The organic practitioner simply doesn't have the same level of aphid infestation. There are far fewer of the little suckers to control! It turns out that there are two reasons for this. The first is that organic producers invariably grow a wider range of crops than a conventional farmer. To improve "efficiency", most farmers grow huge fields of a single crop. Most pests are susceptible to a range of insect predators that are encouraged by having appropriate plants growing in the vicinity. In the case of the cabbage family crops, this can be canola (what we used to call rape, but that's no longer PC). The rape, sorry, canola doesn't even need to be harvested to justify its reduction in pesticide cost in conventional broccoli production! 

The organic producer is way ahead. It turns out that aphids need free amino acids in the plant sap to maintain optimum health. Water soluble nitrogen sources, such as urea and ammonium sulphate, produce plants with luxury amounts of free amino acids and hence a free lunch for aphids. Organic producers provide their crops with composted animal manures as the nitrogen source. Since the nitrogen is in the form of insoluble protein, the crop contains much less free amino acids in the sap and the aphids have to break down protein. The energy cost is high enough that the aphids are much more susceptible to disease and reproduce much slower. Their numbers nearly always remain within the capacity of predators to control.

On the few occasions that aphids manage to gain the upper hand, generally very early spring or late autumn, a dilute soap or detergent solution can be used to wet their waxy bodies and suffocate them. Soap and detergents are pretty cheap stuff! 

I don't know if it's still the case, but some time ago it became illegal in the UK to use anything other than a registered pesticide to kill pests. This had me imagining the local bobby popping up to arrest a white haired little old lady for pouring the washing up water over her roses! 

Thought for the day:

We are prone to destroy the beast when it aborts, when it gives midgets, or when it contracts a disease common to ourselves. Destroying the evidence is apparently a more common practice than diagnosing it to find the cause of the abnormalities.

William Albrecht


Saturday 13 January 2001

The House of Steel has been updated with lots of pictures.

Immediately before commencing writing today, I had a problem to solve. When I walked into the toilet for my morning defecation, there was water flowing freely from the cistern connection. Some time ago we were given a much smarter looking cistern than we currently owned, so I replaced the original. Unfortunately, the connection to the polythene water line is displaced by a centimetre from the original. There is insufficient room for an elbow joiner and rather than bore another hole through the wall, stacked 4 elbows to make the connection. Very Rube Goldberg, but it worked.

To keep it compact, I used low pressure elbows with compression bands to make it hold together. This is the second time it has come apart in ten years -- not bad for a quick and dirty temporary fix. But I will have to bore another hole through the wall to make room for something a little more substantial. Fortunately, the leak had only just started when I entered the toilet, so there wasn't too much water to mop up.

The House of Steel will have a water outlet through the floor in every room where there is a possibility of water causing a flood. The bottom end of the outlet will have a flap valve to prevent draughts, insects and so on.

The funny thing is, I have had toilets on the brain for the last 24 hours. It appears that the powers that be have decreed dual flush toilets are not a sufficient water saving measure. The very latest toilets produce a smaller volume of flush and have a more restricted outlet to increase the flow rate. The problem with this is that if you produce too much more faecal matter, it doesn't clear.

There are two solutions to this: flush the toilet several times or lay down toilet paper around the bottom of the bowl to reduce the friction. In other words to "conserve" water, you need to either use more (with a wait for the cistern to refill) or use more toilet paper. Moronic!

Like Bob Walder, I find it intriguing that there's so much interest in divesting oneself of MS product. This brings two clichés to mind: "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater" and "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face". I find the combination of Win2k Pro, Office 2k, PageMaker 6.5, FileMaker Pro 4 and CorelDRAW! Suite 8 more than good enough for my productivity needs. If I had money to burn, I could shift to the Mac and then have to put up with a seriously unstable computer that would reduce my productivity. If I wanted to cripple my productivity almost completely, I could move to Linux. I'm not about to hold my breath waiting for this to change!

Server space is a different kettle of fish. Despite a valiant attempt by MS to produce a useful server for small business, Small Business Server is a mixed blessing. Shoehorning Email, Proxy, SQL, Web Serving etc into a single box is no trivial task, even when the underlying parent products have been developed to more than good enough. Some people seem surprised when SBS doesn't behave like the full Back Office Suite. Just try running Back Office on a single server. I have and it doesn't work. NT 4 Server and SBS 4.5 are not the same OS. Close relatives maybe, but different.

SBS 2000 may, or may not, be the answer to the small business maiden's prayer. But MS will release a useable product sooner or later. Meanwhile, Caldera have been promising a Linux knockoff of SBS for several years. They have yet to achieve this. Caldera has a rival product, but it's not an SBS killer. At least they are attacking MS at its most vulnerable point. Who knows, if they hadn't gone haring off after MS on the desktop, they may have had the resources to have completed the SBS knockoff. And had a knockout. We may yet live long enough to see this.

MS's big problem at the moment isn't Linux, Star Office, Word Perfect etc. It's knowing that many of us don't need anything better than we already have. The days of the automatic upgrade because what was on offer gave a real return on investment are pretty much over. The same may also be true for my hardware. I suspect that the machine I am sitting at will remain in use longer than any I have owned previously.

Another thing I find intriguing is the human condition. In a world full of uncertainty, most crave certainty. Just think how boring life would be if everything was predetermined and you knew exactly what was going to happen for the rest of your life! Many of us spend a lot of time solving problems and then try to shoehorn that part of our mind we use for solving problems into dealing with mysteries. Problems have solutions, but mysteries don't. The scientific method is particularly good for problem solving, but it has nothing useful to say about our feelings about ourselves and our relationships with each other. This is our own individual inner domain.

Developing the inner self is just as important as developing skills for dealing with externalities: food, shelter etc. It's all too easy to get so caught up in the externalities that when a BIG uncertainty occurs, we feel powerless. And it hurts. If on the other hand you spend some time deliberately focussing on uncertainties, you are toughened and the big ones don't hurt quite so much. Because you realise that's the purpose of uncertainty. To toughen you, or make you wiser.

When you understand this, and someone close to you is hurting badly from uncertainty, you can help them to endure the hurt. And when the hurt has gone, you have a stronger fellowship with that person than before. And it's a mystery because there is no final solution, only an ongoing feeling that you have both grown in some way.

Thought for the day:

Every phase of evolution commences by being in a state of unstable force and proceeds through organization to equilibrium. Equilibrium having been achieved, no further development is possible without once more upsetting equilibrium. Whosoever acts spoils it. Whosoever attempts to keep equilibrium loses it.



Sunday 14 January 2001

Very hot today, so instead of working, we went to Richmond for the fruit wine tasting festival. Caught the very end of the folk music performance by Huon musicians Steve Gadd, Trish and John Noakes and Marjorie Hearn. Bought a CD of local folk music and tasted some wine, most of which was best described as mediocre. The wine that is, not the music. We ate a wood-fired garlic and cheese pizza that was delicious.

Back home we ate lightly of home made smoked salmon, lettuce from the garden and King Island camembert. Washed down with chateau cardboard chardonnay.

I would have liked to have written how pleasant it was to have had a computer-free day, but I spent the morning working on Franklin and Friends and making tickets for the Rory McLeod concert. The latter was harder than it need have been. The problem I had printing from CorelDRAW! eventually turned out to be curable by stopping and restarting the printer. Obviously an earlier print job had sent the command: "Annoy Jonathan by printing subsequent pages compressed 50% in the X axis". Ah, the joys of PostScript!

Thomas was away camping with a friend so we watched Tea with Mussolini (excellent) on the video and went early to bed.

Thought for the day:

Sundays, quiet islands on the tossing seas of life.

S W Duffield


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© Jonathan Sturm 2001

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© Jonathan Sturm 2001