A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

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Tuesday 13 May 2003

The couple who viewed the cottage on Saturday want another look this coming weekend, so The Git is flat chat making the cottage look as spick and span as possible by then. Also good news is that Centrelink have finally started paying Thomas his student allowance. The back-pay came to about a thousand dollars, so he's shopping for a Pocket PC. Since the school of computer science at the university has nothing to teach him, he has been developing a game for the burgeoning Pocket PC gamers market.


Dan Seto writes:

Hi Jonathan,

I don't know if I would go so far as HL Mencken did in his quote but there is some truth in it. Distilled down, what he seemed to be saying is: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach" (another old saying). I guess we've both come across examples of such in our studies.

But when you think about it, it is understandable, if not agreeable. The University of Hawai'i at Manoa calls itself a research institution, not a teaching institution. They make that very clear - if you want to "merely" learn something, go to the community colleges (our two-year lower level campuses where you can get no more than an Associate Degree). But, if you want to go on, then you have to go to Manoa and put up with 300 people in the intro level courses taught br graduate assistants.

The professors there don't teach, they do research, write books/publish papers, and guide graduate students to do the same. Yes, this is a bit cynical and perhaps things are not as bad as that. But there is truth in this as well.

Yet, I don't know who to blame for this. The professors exist in a system that rewards research, not teaching. The system is such that millions in research funding can be captured. The more research money, the more researchers (and administrators) can be hired; the more papers can be published; the more fame this will bring to the institution.

Conversely, students in public institutions rarely pay the full cost of their education. Typically, government, through your taxes, pays up to 75 percent of the cost. Hence, there isn't any incentive to serve students because it just costs the government more money. The same can't be said for private institutions, at least, I don't think to the same degree. But even private schools must supplement tuition with grants or scholarships to make it affordable for people.

I wish I knew what the solution was, but I don't.

Aloha - Dan


Regarding WinXP, Bo Leuf writes:

I've retrofit 3 systems now from as-delivered WXP (OEM) to W2k, carefully saving off the WXP drivers folder each time before blowing away the original system. Just in case. Turns out that the XP drivers I've had occasion to try have all been perfectly happy to install and run in W2k. This is something the packages are silent about in the documentation, as are often the machine documents -- the machines are stickered: "made for WXP", and at least HP implies (by not providing any support pages or downloadable drivers other than for WXP for the model) that their box is no damn good with anything else. Huh. HP and MS appear as thick as thieves these days, as the saying goes.

/ Bo

Now that is interesting. Many thanks, Bo.


What a World! By Freeman J. Dyson

A review of The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change by Vaclav Smil

It is refreshing to read a book full of facts about our planet and the life that has transformed it, written by an author who does not allow facts to be obscured or overshadowed by politics. Vaclav Smil is well aware of the political disputes that are now raging about the effects of human activities on climate and biodiversity, but he does not give them more attention than they deserve. He emphasizes the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations, and the superficiality of our theories. He calls attention to the many aspects of planetary evolution which are poorly understood, and which must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet. When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured.


From Vernadsky and his dreams, I turn now to the major theme of Smil's book, which is the difficulty of understanding the behavior of the biosphere on a global scale. Even the nonliving processes governing weather and climate are difficult to understand. The living processes governing the fertility of forests and oceans are even more difficult. As an example to illustrate the difficulties, I look at the effects on the biosphere of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is one of the subjects in Smil's book, but it is the reviewer, not the author, who is responsible for giving it emphasis here. As a result of the burning of coal and oil, the driving of cars, and other human activities, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing at a rate of about half a percent per year.

Everyone agrees that the increasing abundance of carbon dioxide has two important consequences. First, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, transparent to sunlight but partially opaque to the heat radiation that transports energy from the earth's surface into space. Second, carbon dioxide is an essential nutrient for plants on land and in the ocean. The increase in carbon dioxide causes changes, both in the transport of energy through the atmosphere and in the growth and reproduction of plants. Opinions differ on two crucial questions. Are the physical or the biological effects of carbon dioxide more important? Are the effects, either separately or together, beneficial or harmful? In his last two chapters, Smil summarizes the evidence bearing on these questions, but does not presume to answer them.

The physical effects of carbon dioxide are seen in changes of rainfall, cloudiness, wind strength, and temperature, which are customarily lumped together in the misleading phrase "global warming." This phrase is misleading because the warming caused by the greenhouse effect of increased carbon dioxide is not evenly distributed. In humid air, the effect of carbon dioxide on the transport of heat by radiation is less important, because it is outweighed by the much larger greenhouse effect of water vapor. The effect of carbon dioxide is more important where the air is dry, and air is usually dry only where it is cold. The warming mainly occurs where air is cold and dry, mainly in the arctic rather than in the tropics, mainly in winter rather than in summer, and mainly at night rather than in daytime. The warming is real, but it is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter. To represent this local warming by a global average is misleading, because the global average is only a fraction of a degree while the local warming at high latitudes is much larger. Also, local changes in rainfall, whether they are increases or decreases, are usually more important than changes in temperature. It is better to use the phrase "climate change" rather than "global warming" to describe the physical effects of carbon dioxide.


The biological effects of carbon dioxide on plants can be seen in changes of rate of growth, ratio of roots to shoots, and water requirement, which are different for different species and may result in shifts of the ecological balance from one kind of plant community to another. Effects on plant communities will also cause effects on dependent communities of microbes and animals. Biological effects are difficult to measure but are likely to be large. Experiments in greenhouses with an atmosphere enriched in carbon dioxide show that the yields of many crop plants increase roughly with the square root of the carbon dioxide abundance. If this were true for the major crop plants grown in the open air, it would mean that the 30 percent increase in carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel-burning over the last sixty years would have resulted in a 15 percent increase of the world's food supply. A similar increase might have occurred in the world production of biomass of all kinds. The word "biomass" means living creatures, plants and animals and microbes, plus the organic remains that are left over when the creatures defecate or die. Smil's Chapter 7 contains a comprehensive survey of the various kinds of biomass that drive the seasonal rhythms of the biosphere.

We do not know whether the increased yields observed in greenhouses with increased carbon dioxide are also occurring in open-air agriculture. Agricultural yields are limited by many factors other than carbon dioxide abundance. One factor that we know to be often limiting for plant growth is water abundance. If the supply of water is limiting, as it often is in times of drought, then increased carbon dioxide can still be helpful. The little pores in the leaves of plants have to be kept open for the plant to acquire carbon dioxide from the air, but the plant loses a hundred molecules of water through the pores for every one molecule of carbon dioxide that it gains. This means that increased carbon dioxide in the air allows the plant to partially close the pores and reduce the loss of water. In dry conditions, increased carbon dioxide becomes a water-saver and gives the plant a better chance to keep on growing.

The fundamental reason why carbon dioxide abundance in the atmosphere is critically important to biology is that there is so little of it. A field of corn growing in full sunlight in the middle of the day uses up all the carbon dioxide within a meter of the ground in about five minutes. If the air were not constantly stirred by convection currents and winds, the corn would not be able to grow. The total content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, if converted into biomass, would cover the surface of the continents to a depth of less than an inch. About a tenth of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is actually converted into biomass every summer and given back to the atmosphere every fall. That is why the effects of fossil fuel-burning cannot be separated from the effects of plant growth and decay.


There are five reservoirs of carbon that are biologically accessible on a short time-scale, not counting the carbonate rocks and the deep ocean which are only accessible on a time-scale of thousands of years. The five accessible reservoirs are the atmosphere, the land plants, the topsoil in which land plants grow, the surface layer of the ocean in which ocean plants grow, and our proved reserves of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is the smallest reservoir and the fossil fuels are the largest, but all five reservoirs are of comparable size. They all interact strongly with one another. To understand any of them, it is necessary to understand all of them. That is why planetary ecology is not an exact science like chemistry.

As an example of the way different reservoirs of carbon dioxide may interact with each other, consider the atmosphere and the topsoil. Greenhouse experiments show that many plants growing in an atmosphere enriched with carbon dioxide react by increasing their root-to-shoot ratio. This means that the plants put more of their growth into roots and less into stems and leaves. A change in this direction is to be expected, because the plants have to maintain a balance between the leaves collecting carbon from the air and the roots collecting mineral nutrients from the soil. The enriched atmosphere tilts the balance so that the plants need less leaf area and more root area. Now consider what happens to the roots and shoots when the growing season is over, when the leaves fall and the plants die. The new-grown biomass decays and is eaten by fungi or microbes. Some of it returns to the atmosphere and some of it is converted into topsoil.

On the average, more of the above-ground growth will return to the atmosphere and more of the below-ground growth will become topsoil. So the plants with increased root-to-shoot ratio will cause an increased net transfer of carbon from the atmosphere into the topsoil. If the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fossil fuel-burning has caused an increase in the average root-to-shoot ratio of plants over large areas, then the possible effect on the topsoil reservoir will not be small. At present we have no way to measure or even to guess the size of this effect. The aggregate biomass of the topsoil of the United States is not a measurable quantity. But the fact that the topsoil is unmeasurable does not mean that it is unimportant.


Roughly speaking, half of the contiguous United States, not including Alaska and Hawaii, consists of mountains and deserts and parking lots and highways and buildings, and the other half is covered with plants and topsoil. Just to see how important an unmeasurable increase of topsoil may be, let us imagine that the increased root-to-shoot ratio of plants might cause an average net increase of topsoil biomass of one tenth of an inch per year over half the area of the contiguous United States. A simple calculation shows that the amount of carbon transferred from the atmosphere to the topsoil would be five billion tons per year. This amount is considerably more than the measured four-billion-ton annual increase of carbon in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the entire earth could be canceled out by an increase of topsoil biomass of a tenth of an inch per year over half of the contiguous United States.

A tenth-of-an-inch-per-year increase of topsoil would be exceedingly difficult to measure. At present we do not even know whether the topsoil of the United States is increasing or decreasing. Over the rest of the world, because of large-scale deforestation and erosion, the topsoil reservoir is probably decreasing. We do not know whether intelligent land management could ensure a growth of the topsoil reservoir by four billion tons of carbon per year, the amount needed to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All that we can say for certain is that this is a theoretical possibility and ought to be seriously explored.

Full Story

Thought for the day:

How soon the labour of men would make a paradise of the earth were it not for misgovernment and a diversion of his energies to selfish interests.

Thomas Jefferson

Current Listening:

The Band -- Cahoots



Thursday 15 May 2003

The execrable Telstra have been at it again. The telephone is out of order, so there's no Internet access at The House of Steel to post this. They promise to come on Tuesday, but we have been waiting since January 2001 for them to replace the "temporary" piece of wire holding the telephone cable to our pole with a proper cable clamp, so we are not holding our breath!

Thomas The Boy Wonder is going up the road to the neighbours we set up a new computer for the other day to do some urgent Internetting rather than travel to the university. Keeping him at home is a matter of importance at the moment as he is being most helpful with the cottage renovation. The Git is sorting through the mayhem of what once was his office, throwing away as much as possible. It's truly amazing what one collects over the years because it may one day prove useful. In The Git's case, this consists of partly used cans of paint, much printed matter, old radio parts... Mrs Git's stuff consists mainly of hundreds of glass jars, a jacket still in its original wrapping and never worn...

The weather has turned rather colder, though only by local standards -- frosty nights and daytime temperatures between 10C and 15C. Since the wood-burning cook-stove is now behaving itself in regards to no longer boiling the water, The Git lowered the grate so that we can put more wood in the firebox. This also transfers more heat to the water jacket. After several hours, there's a very gentle glug-glug-glug, but none of the loud banging noises we had before the plumber replaced the 3/4 inch pipes between the stove and hot water cylinder with one inch pipe. The temperature in The Great Hall reached 25C, so we had to open a window and door to achieve a more comfortable 23C. Perhaps we won't need the electric heater on the coldest nights this winter, or need to install a hot water radiator in The Great Hall. We will install small hot water radiators in the laundry, bathroom and bedrooms to take the chill off the air. Needless to say, we will not be employing the plumber who made us wait fifteen months to reach this happy state of affairs!

Thought for the day:

Keep some souvenirs of your past, or how will you ever prove it wasn't all a dream? 

Ashleigh Brilliant

Current Listening:

Count Basie -- Jam



Sunday 18 May  2003

Despite the valiant efforts of The Git, Mrs Git, Dennis and Thomas the Boy Wonder, the cottage was not quite spick and span by today. The Git is still sifting through twenty years of history in his office, keeping only the documents he deems most important -- mainly correspondence, hand and typewritten articles and newspaper clippings. Anything that is duplicated elsewhere is being ruthlessly discarded. Today, The Git started at 5am and at 9.30am, Mrs Git informed him the potential buyers for the cottager could not make it today due to an "emergency". So it goes...

Of course the work is not in any sense wasted. We now have a cottage that looks far more salubrious. In a week's time, we will advertise our "partially renovated cottage" at a price somewhat higher than we expect to sell at. It's definitely a seller's market and prices are still rising.


The Git received a telephone call from Telstra. Far from the telephone problem being at our end, the tech on the phone said he had just repaired a fault in the exchange that brought several connections back to life, including ours.


Found in the cottage, an aerial photograph of our farm. The cottage is near the bottom and slightly to the right of centre, immediately to the left of the road. Just below is the half acre freshly ploughed field that spent the next ten years as a market garden. Nowadays it's where you will find The House of Steel. The photograph was taken in late 1983, or early 1984.

Aerial photograph of where The Git lives

Thought for the day:

The secret of happiness is this: Let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile. 

Bertrand Russell

Current Listening:

Neil Young -- Time Fades Away


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