The miraculous milpa

If you jumped in a time machine and materialised 4000 years ago in what is now modern Mexico, it is likely that you would see maize being cultivated in a field called a milpa. This would not have resembled the vast fields of monocultural grain which can currently be seen in the American Midwest. The ancient maize would be mixed in with avocado, squashes, chili, amaranth, and climbing beans which would be using the maize stalks as a trellis to get closer to the sunlight. This is a highly productive arrangement, capable of producing hundreds of tons of food per hectare.

Purple beans climbing maize plants

The most impressive thing about this scene is that if you returned to your own time it is possible that you might see the same milpabeing cultivated in the same way, four thousand years later. This is an extraordinary achievement in our modern agricultural world where we maintain soil fertility by either the addition of fertiliser or by practicing crop rotation. Forty centuries of continuous cultivation is probably unique in the history of world agriculture.



Soon I will eat you

Even better, throw in a couple of other crops and you have yourself a complete food source. Maize provides starch but an incomplete set of proteins. Beans provide fibre and the remaining proteins that the human body needs. Avocadoes provide fat. Squashes provide vitamins and trace nutrients. Chillies provide flavour. This near-perfect combination of nutrition and agricultural stability mean that the milpa may be the most perfect agricultural system yet devised. The only input is human labour.

I’m an experimentally-minded person so I thought I’d try to plant a milpa in my family’s garden allotment in Collingwood. We selected sweet corn as our maize of choice and allowed them to grow to about a foot tall. Then we planted purple climbing beans about three weeks ago and they have started to wend their way up the maize stalks. Underneath it all we’ve planted cucumbers as our squash, mainly because my daughters love them.

The first harvest of cucumbers


As you can see, it’s working really well. I was worried that the maize would shade the others out, but it turned out that that was an excellent idea for a Melbourne summer. The cucumbers aren’t drying out too much, the maize (planted in a block for pollination reasons) is thriving, and the beans, boring though they are, don’t need to be staked to be productive.

So much of the modern agricultural system is built around minimising human labour (because it’s expensive) and making up for that with extensive chemical and mechanised input. That has been both highly productive but also highly damaging. We may be coming up to a time where growing food at home is again a good use of time and resources (as well as deeply satisfying). If that is the case, we could learn some lessons from ancient agricultural systems, in particularly the extraordinary milpa.

Another satisfied customer

New year, new gym

I cancelled my membership at my gym this morning. It was kind of an inverse New Year resolution, and the fit young man behind the desk was briefly confused. But when I explained that I was buying myself a home gym, he immediately understood.

“Yeah mate. Throwing money away coming here.”

It’s not the money that’s the issue though. It’s that I’ve been remarkably shit at getting to the gym lately, not out of any laziness on my part. I love the gym. It’s my break from the rest of my life as well as being a generally virtuous thing to do. However getting there becomes a difficult proposition when I need around 90 minutes of child-free, work-free, responsibility-free time. I manage that around once a week.

I take that time of course, but let’s be honest – I’m not really achieving anything. At best I’m treating water, athletically. I can’t do that too long before I start to move backwards down Dave Tate’s continuum from suck towards shit.

So I have ordered the basic ingredients of a home gym. My current dwelling has a garage which is mostly used for storage, but which can also accommodate a barbell and some iron. It’s a very basic setup – just the bar and around 160kg of plates, mostly bumpers. I won’t be able to back squat, and most lifts will require me to power clean the bar first. I don’t mind – it’s a bit of extra training and the simplicity of it appeals. My friend Kyle from Athletic Club East has kindly written me a program entitled “the Lonely Barbell” to accommodate my limitations.

Travel time to my new gym is about thirty seconds. The return trip to the shower is about the same.

No more bros.

No more curling in the squat rack.

No more disinterested “trainers”.

No more TV and shitty music.
No more Prancercise.
Clothes optional.

Hangover Serendipity; or How to Drink Too Much But Still Have A Good Day While Travelling in the Balkans

I awoke in Zagreb with the kind of headache that makes the religious question their faith in God. Mild hangovers exist in the head only, in the form of a fuzziness or moderate ache. More severe hangovers progress south towards the belly, where the churning acid generated by the night’s revels threatens to strip the lining from your stomach while simultaneously making a break for the exit via your epiglottis. The most severe hangovers seem to permeate your entire body with pain and an indescribable sense of woe, deep foreboding, and profound confusion. I had one of the latter types of hangover.

I was surprised at how it had occurred. No doubt the fact that I’d only slept for about four hours hadn’t helped, but it didn’t seem like I’d had that much to drink. With surprising clarity I recalled that I’d spent the night in a bar in the old town with a few English-speaking backpackers drinking, perversely, Guinness. There was a young man about my age who was on some kind of journey of self-discovery in the Balkans, or perhaps self-repair. I recalled him telling some story of personal crisis involving the death of his sister in tragic circumstances, and parental funding of a trip around Europe meant to provide some perspective on his life. I’m not sure it worked though – as Paul Theroux observes, the act of travelling is rarely an escape from the self and is most likely to inspire deep introspection. The young man’s pain was so raw and obvious that I think the other backpackers and I were drinking in order to insulate ourselves from his suffering as much as we were trying to have a good time.

I recall making my excuses and wandering back to my accommodation with the plan that I was going to get up early in the morning and take the train to Vienna. Even then I realised that this was ambitious given my state of advanced impairment. So when I awoke the next morning with pain seeping from my eyeballs I was not surprised.

Breakfast was not an option, but coffee seemed wise, so I bought a small cup at the train station and took it on board. Trains in the Balkans have a knack of going just a little bit more slowly than seems necessary, but not slowly enough to make one reconsider the trip. The coffee improved my conscious state slightly and we wended our way through a surprising amount of forest. Given that this general area of the world had been a war zone only a few years earlier, and that the backpackers’ hostel reportedly still contained refugees until six months ago, it was idyllic.

Somewhere around Novo Mesto the gentle rocking back and forth of the train synchronised with the pulsations of my abdomen and a wave of horror swept over me.  Nausea, in my view, is far worse than an equivalent degree of outright pain. Pain can somehow be shut out of the consciousness, but nausea penetrates to every corner of one’s being and is the defining experience of sickness. Hangover nausea is somehow even worse, knowing that you did it to yourself. The train rocked. Acid coffee sloshed around in my stomach. I sweated.

The challenge with vomiting is knowing when to make your break for the toilet. Too late and the motion may trigger an uncontrollable expulsion of stomach contents. Too soon and you end up wrapped around the toilet bowl for hours waiting for the vomit that may or may not come. Due to general malaise and confusion I nearly left this one too late. I tasted metal at the back of my throat and stood up like I’d been electrocuted, then stumbled toward the end of the carriage and almost fell into the cubicle. The vomit, when it came a moment later, was like chemotherapy or ridding oneself of an incubus which had been hitching a ride on my soul. Every time I felt like I’d finished and that my belly was raw as sandpaper, another twist in the railway track would trigger a fresh bout of waterfall howling.

After what seemed like hours of purging I felt no better. I was in bad shape. I wiped sputum off my face while wondering how my teeth hadn’t been eroded to little nubs, then stumbled back to my seat. Staying on the train was clearly not an option. There were hours left to go until I got to Vienna and I had no expectation of surviving the trip.

Opening my guidebook I ascertained that the next stop would be Ljubljana, the capital of tiny Slovenia. By all reports it was a lovely place, a little green splinter of Yugoslavia which had been relatively untouched by the war in the Balkans. This seemed like an excellent place to nurse a hangover, and anyway, few things could be less pleasant than feeling like a dehydrated corpse on the move.

I jumped ship at Ljubljana’s main station. To be fair, there weren’t any other stations in contention.  Slovenia used to be the northern province of Yugoslavia, which had been assembled after the First World War out of the smoking shrapnel of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Kingdom of Serbia. It was intended to be a “pan-Slavic” state composed of all the slavic peoples of Southern Europe who had been separated by rival empires, a noble aspiration which turned out to be ineffective. After the Second World War ferocious repression by Marshal Tito in the name of Communism managed to maintain internal order, but at the price of an explosion of violence following the breakdown of the communist regimes in Europe.

Slovenia may have been the least representative successor state of the character of Yugoslavia. For one thing it is resolutely northern-looking culturally, having been part of the Austro-Hungarian and Holy Roman Empires for an awfully long time. For another thing it is peaceful, prosperous and safe.

As I stumbled out of the station into the town itself I wondered for a moment whether I had accidentally alighted in Austria. As my somewhat hazy vision corrected itself I pondered the possibility that I had suffered a seizure and woken up in northern Italy.  The buildings had red terracotta roofs and jaunty Austrian yellow paint and I found small parks and squares around every corner. Ljubljana seems to belong to a world of alpine hills and frivolous Italian architecture rather than grim Soviet-style concrete blocks found further south in Serbia. I was shocked.

I ambled the two hundred metres from the main train station into the centre of the old town. Like most ancient settlements in Europe it is built on a river, in this case the Ljubljanica. The banks of the river have been fortified with steep stoneworks. I imagine that this makes the river rather exciting when flooded, but it’s also reassuring – all the work seems to have gone into taming the river rather than using the stone to build walls repelling invaders. It all seemed so peacefully cosmopolitan.

After a few minutes wandering I found myself crossing a bridge festooned with dragon sculptures of various sizes. The bridge itself didn’t seem like anything special, but a quick dip into the my guidebook revealed that it was one of the earlier works of the Viennese Seccession, and being structurally iffy, had been built in one of the outer Hapsburg provinces rather than Vienna, where a collapsed bridge would not have been a good look.

There was a small riverside market on the far side. I stopped and bought a bag of cherries, figuring that they would be the most that my traumatised stomach could handle, and sat down by the river dangling my feet over the stoneworks. The cherries were magnificent, easily the best that I have ever eaten. I don’t know whether I was lucky to buy them in season or whether Slovenian cherries are the best in the world, but I gorged on them until the juice streamed down my face and I frightened small children.

Refreshed and very nearly enlightened, I wandered my way over to a ludicrous baroque church which resembled a cake made for a five year old girl. Formally named the Fransiscan Church of the Annunciation it caught my attention because it had clearly been moved here from Rome in the night and no-one was talking about it, but also because I think I’d seen it before in one of my father’s paintings. I couldn’t quite bring myself to go in (Church fatigue is a real thing), and instead seated myself in a vast outdoor cafe in the main square. They sold coffee and I like coffee.

As I sat in this square with the golden afternoon light filtering into my brain and cherries and coffee fermenting quietly in my abdomen, I was overcome with the great sense of ease and relief that I experience when I realise that a hangover has finally resolved. I also pondered the people of Slovenia – they all appeared so young, healthy and relaxed, quite unlike the undertone of menace in Zagreb and the semi-rural poverty of Romania. I felt very strongly that despite the chaos of the Yugoslavian wars these people at least were in with a chance.  A northern-looking, Catholic bias doesn’t guarantee success of course, but it seemed a much wiser choice to emulate success than to relapse into the horrors of the 1940s.

As the sun headed towards the horizon I swilled the last of my coffee and ambled back to the train station. I would still be in Vienna that evening, although somewhat later than I had planned. Ljubljana was a beautiful city that I would never otherwise have visited.

It was almost worth the hangover.

The (former) space program

I posted on Facebook a couple of days ago about why I believe that manned spaceflight in general, and the moon landings in particular, are the greatest achievement of human civilisation to date. Rather than comment on everyone’s comments, I thought I’d write something down here instead. Importantly, my ideas about this may not be the same as yours, and that’s ok.

First things first – as Bed commented, we need to define our terms.  What is human civilisation? More importantly, what does greatest mean? We could argue for hours about this, so I’ll keep it simple. I consider human civilisation to be everything that has happened since the the mastery of fire, so that might take it back 200,000 years or more. No other animals use fire in remotely the same way that we do, so we’re alone in that club.

Speaking of terminology, some people objected to my use of “manned” as a potentially sexist term. I agree that it’s not perfect, but I’m not aware of any term in the English language that captures the same meaning and not hopelessly awkward. So I’ve stuck with manned, while fully acknowledging that numerous shuttle and Mir missions have included female members.

The gnarlier question is: what does “greatest” mean? Clearly there are as many ways of defining this as there are people, which is why I asked for comment. None of these are right or wrong necessarily, although they may display different focusses.

A couple of people mentioned various technological developments such as clean drinking water, vaccines and antibiotics. I think these are all excellent things, and from a public health point of view there is no question that they have been the biggest factors in increasing the human population and life expectancy over the whole of our history. Our very ability to achieve space missions probably relies on these medical innovations and the society that they have allowed to flourish. But I consider these to be foundational achievements which enable greater ones, not pinnacles in themselves. I think the development of written language is similar – a massive technological innovation which enabled many other subsequent ones. So when I talk about the “greatest” achievement, I probably think of it more as a summit of a mountain than a foundation of a building.

The main reason that I think that manned spaceflight is the greatest achievement of human civilisation is that it represents the ultimate expression of the human ability to shape our environment. Space and the moon are so completely hostile to life, especially human life, that we wouldn’t be able to last more than thirty seconds without our technology. The human species has spent the last half a million years shaping the world to meet our needs – escaping the earth entirely in order to live outside of it is a transcendent success. From the point of view of evolutionary fitness, our success as a species has been so profound as to allow us to step outside of the terrestrial environment entirely. For the teleologically inclined, being able to go from the development of agriculture to departure from the earth in about 350 generations is very impressive.

As Kyle pointed out, it’s a pity that the space program seems to have effectively ground to a halt. We went from the first satellites to humans on the moon in less than ten years… but that was forty years ago. We seem unable or unwilling to take the next step. That makes me sad because I hope we didn’t peak as a civilisation in the early 1970s. Part of the beauty of the space program was that it shows what we can do when we put our minds to it. That degree of focus and concentration may only be temporary, but to me it’s something to be celebrated.



Clive James

It’ll be a tragedy when Clive James finally dies. Although it seems like his illness has been prolonged, as indeed it often is when one receives excellent care, I know that I will wake up one day soon to hear that he is to be mourned.  He has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest intellectual talents that Australia has thrown up, even though we were too stupid as a country to recognise it in the 1960s.

I never liked him at first. I saw a number of his TV shows and specials in the 1980s as a child, where he delivered smarmy one-liners about television or visited exotic locales to make smarmy one-liners about the locals. My parents loved him and I never understood why. It took me decades to realise that what I took as a talent for cheap shots was actually a great sardonic wit. However I haven’t rewatched any of his TV because 80s production values cause me intense psychic pain.

To me, his TV work, and even his writing about it for the newspapers was a sideshow. His real genius lay in his essays, to which I was first exposed in the form of a thoughtful gift. His perception for wide-ranging and insightful comment is impressive; even more impressive is the fact that his comments are usually hugely entertaining and terribly witty. Again, any perception that he is out for a cheap shot is shattered by the clear love that he has for literature and his deep learning in virtually all fields of culture and history. His knowledge shines through and his judgements are wise.

His most recent collection of essays, Latest Readings comprise a series of short documents discussing the books that he is reading or re-reading at the end of his life. Reflections on Australian poets are interleaved with reflections on the tedium of treatment for oncology. He is rushing to read as many great works as he can before his death, working on the principle that if one is going to die, one might as well die happy. As one might expect, there is a deep vein of sadness that runs throughout the book.

In our age of disposable or downright manufactured media identities, and the decades-long hysteria surround the death of people such as Steve Irwin who represent the denser aspects of Australian culture, I fear that Clive James’ looming demise will attract little attention. It’s disappointing that one of Australia’s best minds is likely to be forgotten relatively quickly, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have a shelf full of his books.

We’re teaching maths wrong

The other day I read an interesting interview with Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and general ideas man. Despite being highly mathematically competent himself, he comments that maths as we know it shouldn’t really be taught in schools, as it is a specialist skill.

I agree.

That is the kind of statement that gets the hackles up of people who work in, for example, engineering or coding.  They talk about how indispensable maths is in their work and I don’t disagree.  What isn’t being recognised is that these are specialist professions which require specialist skills. School teaching, for at least the first ten years, needs to be generalist in focus as we don’t know what destinies the students are bound for.

I think the question we need to answer is what mathematical skills are required for the general population. What do we need to live in the modern world, independent of the needs of our professional life? These are the skills that should be emphasised, and specialised skills taught in the last few years of school, if at all.

Basic arithmetic.  No-one gets very far without a robust toolkit of basic skills in order to do everyday life activities such as buying and selling. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are the big ones. The emphasis here should be on a multiplicity of approaches – if a student has an idiosyncratic method which nevertheless gets the right answer, that is great.

Basic algebra. Most people get along just fine without calculus, but it’s really useful to be able to wrangle a few simple a + b = x problems.

Basic geometry. At some point in their life, everyone has to measure and build something, and needs to know how physical shapes interact. This might involve some very basic trigonometry, but not much more. If medieval people managed to build cathedrals with basic geometry, most modern adults will be fine.

Lots of probability and statistics. I think that training in probability is one of the most important things to be educated in.  Our modern world relies on being able to determine which of two events is more likely, whether it’s in the casino, in elections, insurance, and all forms of planning for the future. In particular it is nearly impossible to be scientifically literate without being able to understand simple probability and statistics. This may sound like special pleading but for most of the wicked decisions we have to deal with as a civilisation the answers aren’t clear. We need probability and statistics to interpret the evidence.

So why do we continue to teach maths beyond the basics? Generations of kids have whined about how they’re going to use calculus in the future, and I think they’re right. Why do we teach it?

It seems to me that much of it is a hurdle requirement. Each time my local firefighting service hires professional firefighters, there are so many applicants that they have to thin the list some way in order to avoid conducting 3000 interviews. So they set the fitness requirements absurdly high, generally much higher than are required for the job itself. I suspect that late school maths is the same – it is being used as a way of separating out the clever kids from the less clever ones by teaching a skill that is only useful for very specific populations of student.

Apart from overhauling the curriculum, I feel that we need to put a lot more thought into how we separate the wheat from the chaff.  Just as medical schools realised years ago that high marks are a poor proxy for whether someone will make a good doctor, maths-as-performance-art is the wrong fork in the road.

Hitler and earworms

I found myself whistling this morning, one of those annoying earworms that the night’s revolutions dredged up from my slumber.  The tune turned out to be the theme song from Bridge over the River Kwai, which as it turns out is a song called Colonel Bogey’s March, dating from the First World War.

What I thought was interesting was that as I whistled it, my brain returned some alternative lyrics which I learned as a child

Hitler has only got one ball.

That one, is very very small.

Himmler has something similar

And Goebbels has no balls at all.

As it happens, I know exactly where I learned these lyrics – in the school playground in Carlton in the 1980s. That’s pretty strange when you think about it – a primary school aged child learning a dirty song from two generations earlier, regarding a man who lived and died on the other side of the world.

Given the distance in time and space, it’s interesting how prominent the Second World War was in people’s thinking back then.  It had finished forty years earlier, but it was always “the war”, as if none of the others that had occurred since then were important. This was even true of my parents, who were of the Vietnam War generation – for them their parents’ war was the key conflict defining the world.

It makes me a little sad to think that the last few people who lived through that time are now dying. When I started working as a paramedic ten years ago it was common to treat old soldiers or their wives.  I’d often ask them about where they served and their wartime experiences and they were generally immensely proud of what they’d done and keen to talk.  But there are few left these days, and those who are still with us are in their 90s.

For my children, I certainly hope that war becomes more of an abstract concept (although I rather doubt it). But in a way it’s sad that the good things about the War, which in many cases have outlasted the bad, are almost gone.  My children will never know the story of that song unless they have an interest in ancient films, although they’ll probably know the tune. That’s the nature of earworms.


Civil Australia

At the time of writing the outcome of yesterday’s Australian federal election was yet to be decided. This lack of clear result has provided huge amounts of material for political speculators, but what struck me yesterday was something quite different – the utter civility of our electoral process.

Granted, some politicians can be less than complimentary than others (although few will reach the heights of Paul Keating), but in general the worst we can say about them is that they were a bit surly in their concession speeches. We complain about the political tone, but really it’s fine.  A little robust, but far better than many other forms of public discourse.

Think about the voting process itself. We stand in line for a while, generally good-naturedly, identify ourselves, then write our choices on some pieces of paper.  Then we all eat a sausage! There is no conflict between voters of rival persuasions, very few conversations even. The most combative things we do are push past the people handing out how-to-vote cards. And it’s all held at the local primary school!  Could it possibly be less dangerous or complicated?

Consider the authority administering the election, the AEC. They’re independent from government, generally very competent, and utterly impartial. An administrative stuff-up is front page news, they’re that good. Voting is compulsory – how else could we achieve fair representation of the electorate.  I have utterly no time or patience for people who complain about compulsory voting. If standing in line for half an hour once every couple of years is such a burden for you, you must have a very difficult life.

Imagine this situation in, well, much of the rest of the world. We are so incredibly lucky to be able to vote at all, and to be able to do so without fear of violence or recrimination, to be lucky enough to whinge about it – well, we are privileged indeed.

Urban Love Affair

I love a good urban environment. I’ve been trying to think about what makes my favourite cities appealing to me and I’m still stuck.  Tokyo makes the grade but Sydney does not. Hong Kong is a definite yes but Kuala Lumpur is a definite no. Bangkok and New York are so-so.
Bangkok.  No.
Density is one of the big drawcards.  I’m a fairly low-stimulus kind of person, so going to a big city that is thronging with people and noise is a pleasant kind of overload for me.  I have to go somewhere quiet after a while though.
Hong Kong apartment towers
Basically a Transformer. Hong Kong
Verticality is mesmerising to me.  One of the things that I love about Hong Kong is that it’s built into the side of a series of mountains, so that one has to think about the space in three dimensions.  Giant bridges join buildings at the fifth or sixth storeys. The third dimension is intoxicating. Compare that to flat, grid-like Melbourne.

A friend suggested that maybe it’s all the straight lines, that somehow they appeal to my brain, but I don’t think that’s it.  If anything a really dense city has so many straight lines that they blur and mesh into a messy whole that resembles a natural environment.
Brutalist nightmare. New York.
Jane Jacobs, the renowned American-Canadian writer on urban studies has stated that vibrant cities need four things: Multi-function districts, small blocks with dense intersections, a diversity of age and form, and sufficient density of people and buildings.  By these criteria the post-war Soviet reconstructions of Eastern Europe are among the worst examples of urban planning ever seen. Canberra isn’t too crash hot either.
I think that Tokyo might be my favourite, and it fits all of the Jacobs criteria. It’s dense, vertical, and busy. But added to that everything has a strangely human feel about it. The streets twist and turn in unpredictable ways and dwellings are mixed in with small shops and small shrines or parks. Few things are deliberately monumental. It feels like a place that people could actually live.


Mansplaining” is usually understood as the phenomenon of men earnestly holding forth to women about a topic which they are already aware of, possibly even expert in.  It’s patronising, infantilising, and generally off-putting. It also fails to take into account the fact that the woman in question may be extremely well informed on the topic, but far too polite to interrupt the man and challenge him, which he would probably take with singularly bad grace anyway.  Mansplaining is, by all reasonable standards, not a very nice thing.


That said, it occurred to me the other night that it’s just sort of the way that men communicate, even with other men.  I was having a chat with a male friend and I noticed that we tended to hold forth on a topic, then wait, and the other person would then agree or seek further information.  It was a little like a Socratic dialogue but with far fewer straw men.


That pattern of conversation is pretty common actually.  It seems to me that this monologue-response-monologue pattern is standard for many of my interactions with men.  I can’t explain why this is, but for me I often don’t feel that I understand something unless I’ve spoken about it, so having the clear air to be able to monologue for a few minutes about my pet topic actually helps me understand myself better. I don’t intend any offence by doing it, but it can be difficult for me to fully understand what I think without talking (or writing) about it


So while mansplaining may be taken as patronising by many women, which it clearly is, it is also the default conversation style for many men, even amongst themselves.