Sunday, 1 November 2015

Where Do Zombies Get Their Energy From?

I've been watching a lot of 'The Walking Dead' recently and it's begun to bother me a bit because I'm not sure where the walkers (zombies) get their energy from.  I have seen zombies which have been wandering around for years which are clearly still moving even if they haven't eaten anyone, and this makes very little sense to me.  Whereas it's true that if you don't need to make your own heat, it helps your food last longer, it just seems a bit excessive.  Therefore I thought I'd set down a few ideas here.

First of all, the laws of thermodynamics themselves:

0. (The "zeroth" law):  If one object is at the same temperature as a second object and the second object is at the same temperature as a third, then the first object is at the same temperature as the third.

1. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another.

2. The entropy of a closed system tends towards a maximum.  Everything wears out and runs down, often in the form of heat equalising everywhere, so for instance a bath or a hot drink warms the room slightly as it cools to the slightly raised room temperature and a splash of water turns into ripples, which then smooth out and the water surface is flat, or an ice cube melts and cools the water it's in.  Hence perpetual motion is impossible, even perpetual motion of the entire Universe - the heat death of the Universe.

3. The coldest possible temperature is -273.15 degrees C, but it can never be reached because it always takes the same amount of energy to halve the temperature of something.

Animals generally get their energy from food.  Sugar, more specifically glucose, is either eaten directly or converted from other kinds of food (e.g. starch), then gradually oxidised as it is broken down, releasing energy as if it's burning.  Most of this is done in animals via the Krebs Cycle, but a relatively small amount of energy is released by further breaking down the end product, lactic acid, in a process called glycolysis which doesn't need oxygen.  There are also other processes around which do the same thing, e.g. yeast converting sugar to ethanol and some bacteria converting ethanol to acetic acid.  Plants also get their energy from food in the same way, but unless they're carnivorous they create that food themselves using the energy from sunlight, and that food is either sugar or made from sugar.

There are also a few bacteria which get energy from food in a different way, such as by combining it with sulphur instead of oxygen and producing hydrogen sulphide.  However, by far the most efficient way of getting energy from food is the Krebs cycle, and as far as I know any large living thing which can move its body around uses the Krebs cycle, although if it moves fast or hasn't got much oxygen available to it, it builds up an "oxygen debt" which must later be paid, such as by panting.

Zombies are therefore a problem.  They don't breathe and blood does not circulate around their bodies.  Therefore, their cells are not getting oxygen, and since the cells are also dead, the mitochondria, where the Krebs cycle happens, aren't working either.  They are therefore not getting their energy from the Krebs cycle and if they are moving using the same mechanisms as living things generally, they aren't able to get enough energy from food to move themselves.  They will run down eventually and their bodies will stop moving.  They do eat, of course, but their digestive systems also need energy to work, e.g. to swallow food and secrete digestive juices.

However, not all chemical reactions are like that.  Burning is a much simpler reaction which releases energy (e.g. in petrol engines and cookers).  However, it does so by completely converting the substances from which it releases energy into oxides apart from the ones which can't be combined with oxygen, and it tends to do so very quickly.  Hence zombies could possibly work like petrol engines or fires, but they would consume themselves rapidly in the process and crumble into ash if that was what they were doing.  Not quite sure about this actually as I can imagine each cell in a zombie's body working like a little petrol engine or something, but then the carbon dioxide wouldn't be carried away and there would be no oxygen provided, so even then the fire would go out.

Having said that, matter is energy and contains a lot of energy.  Not all energy is chemical, and chemistry only works to release relatively tiny amounts of energy from chemicals while leaving most of the atoms and molecules alone and unchanged, just rearranged.  Atomic energy is different, and can be released in much larger amounts.  This works because atomic nuclei, at the centre of atoms, are held together by something called the Strong Nuclear force.  Like charges normally push each other apart, but this doesn't happen in atoms because there is a stronger force than electricity and magnetism holding them together.  Atoms of different sizes need different amounts of energy to hold themselves together.  If an atom is changed from one kind to another and the second kind needs less energy to hold it together, it will release some of that extra energy.  This is what happens during radioactive decay.

If zombies are nuclear powered, they would have to be highly radioactive and as well as killing and attempting to eat people, they would give them cancer and radiation sickness even if they escaped the immediately fatal process of being eaten.  I quite like the idea of radioactive zombies.  This could also mean that if enough zombies got together in one place, they would engage in a runaway nuclear reaction rather than a controlled one such as in a nuclear reactor and explode like a nuclear weapon.  This also appeals to me because it makes them even more dangerous.

Even nuclear power and atom bombs only release a tiny fraction of the energy present in matter.  According to Einstein, the energy present in matter is equivalent to the mass of the matter multiplied by the square of the speed of light.  In other words, E=mc^2.  This means, for example, that there is enough energy in the average adult human corpse to provide all the energy used by the United States for thirty years.  Hence zombies could conceivably be surviving by gradually converting all of their mass into energy, and they could keep going for millions of years that way.  However, the only known way of doing that is by bringing matter and antimatter together.  If a zombie contains wormholes to another Universe where the body of a corresponding zombie is made of antimatter rather than matter, that would be one way this could be happening, but it would have to happen extremely slowly or a single zombie body would probably release enough energy in one go to destroy the Earth completely.  Now that really would be a zombie apocalypse.

Monday, 5 October 2015


I'm tempted to put this whole blog entry in yellow, but it'd be illegible so I won't bother.

This is another home ed staple - oobleck.  Once again I'll start off by describing the practicalities and then move on to what it's all about.

Oobleck is a mixture of corn starch and water often referred to as custard.  However, it isn't really good quality custard in terms of food but an illustration of the weird things liquids can do sometimes.  The recipe is one part of water to one part of cornstarch, thoroughly but slowly mixed.  You end up with a liquid which will flow if poured, but if you hit it hard it will feel firm.  If you squeeze it in your hand, it will form a ball but that ball will then gradually trickle between your fingers and drip off it.  If you plunge a fist into a jug of it slowly, you can then lift the jug with your hand.  It also does entertaining things on speaker cones:

If you fill a swimming pool with it and stomp your way across it, it will support your weight:

Oobleck or "custard" and its physical properties also led to a bit of an obsession by various people on the Halfbakery, such as custard-filled speed bumps, custard-filled trousers, custard guns, custard running tracks and eventually the overuser of custard destroyer and the like.  There's also Ustard.  Oobleck occupies a strange position in my mindmap where two of the major things I've done overlap.

Custard, as Halfbakers call it, is one of many "non-Newtonian fluids".  This needs to be explained.  In the case of custard, the property is shear thickening.  I should probably explain what a Newtonian fluid is first.  A Newtonian fluid is one whose deformation is linear with respect to stress.  In other words, the harder you splash it, the further it goes.  What with the world being an imperfect place, where for example lightning doesn't strike in a straight line and trees are not brown cylinders with green spheres on top, strictly speaking most liquids are not Newtonian.  For instance, pond skaters can do this:

"Amenbo 06f5520sx" by Cory. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.1 jp via Commons -
and it's possible to float needles and even razor blades on water, meaning that there can be quite a lot of stress applied to water before it starts to behave in a Newtonian manner.  Air and other gases are also fluids, and are closer to being Newtonian than water.  Water is in various ways a very unusual substance, one of which is its surface tension, which is stronger than most other liquids, an exception being liquid selenium.

Other examples of very non-Newtonian fluids are quicksand, wet cement, toothpaste, ketchup, silly putty and non-drip gloss paint.  From a home ed point of view, lots of these are easily available. 

 Ketchup is notoriously good at getting stuck in a bottle and then suddenly splurting out when you bang it too hard on the bottom while gradually flowing out under the influence of gravity, although recent redesigns of ketchup bottles have made this less problematic.  This is the opposite to custard, shear-thinning, and is due to the presence of xanthan gum.  That is, the stress put on ketchup makes it flow more than expected, or rather, than if it was water or even a much thicker liquid like mercury.

Non-drip gloss paint is an interesting one because it's easy to spread on a surface but won't flow down it because its viscosity (thickness) depends on time more than force.

"Toothpasteonbrush" by Thegreenj - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Another kind of non-Newtonian fluid is toothpaste, which is like water as described above only more so.  It can hold a peak because it requires a certain amount of force before it'll move at all, but after that point behaves quite normally.  (Incidentally, toothpaste is easy to make from chalk powder or dried clay with hopefully vegetarian glycerine.)

The quicksand problem is an example of the effect of shear-thinning.  Quicksand itself is about twice as dense as a human body so it should be impossible to sink entirely into it.  The thing to do to escape is to move slowly.  However, it can become so sticky that it would take a car to pull someone out and it also means things can happen like the tide coming in before you get out or a Boa constrictor coming up and eating you.  There was a point in the 1960s when 3% of all newly released films had a scene where someone got stuck in quicksand.

Silly putty is a particularly nice example of a non-Newtonian fluid.  I won't link to it because that would be advertising, but for people who haven't experienced it, it's a substance which is like modelling clay when you move it slowly but if you throw it, it will bounce, and if you drop it off a high building it will actually shatter.  Left to itself, it will gradually form a pool, which however can have started off as any shape.  Technically, silly putty is mainly polydimethylsiloxane, which is a polymer (chain of molecules) made of silicon, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen:

It's a fairly exciting substance because it behaves like the kind of substances which make up living things, such as latex, but is largely silicon-based, raising the as yet unanswered question of whether there's life out there in the Universe based on silicon rather than carbon.  I made a video about that once which was quite popular.  Anyway, the reason it behaves as it does is that its chains are very flexible, so it can hold its shape well over short periods but over long periods tends to droop under the influence of mechanical forces such as gravity.  It can also be used in hair conditioner.

At very low temperatures, helium becomes a very special kind of fluid called a superfluid.  This is particularly interesting because it flows uphill and leak through solid objects.  It has no viscosity at all, so it can be used to produce a fountain which never stops flowing:

One thing which interests me about superfluid liquid helium is what would happen if you tried to make custard with it.  That is, if you took a fine powder of frozen hydrogen and suspended it in liquid helium, what would happen?

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Diet Coke And Mentos

Like ooblek, this is another home ed classic, and of course it's out there in the ether with a load of other things like vinegar and bicarb.

What it comes down to basically is that you get a two litre bottle of Diet Coke, make a paper funnel and post five sugar-free Mentos down into the neck of the bottle.  Then you run away very fast unless you want to get covered in Diet Coke fizz, and you might I suppose, depending on your age.

It used to shoot ten metres in the air.  When we did it at John's Lee Wood home ed camp back in the 'noughties, it did exactly that.  However, for some reason Coca Cola decided they would make it less spectacular, so nowadays it only shoots up a couple of metres, but it's still quite impressive.

The experience of going into a shop and buying sugar-free Mentos and Diet Coke is quite a daunting one for me and this is the only reason I would ever do that.  Here are the ingredients for Diet Coke:

and here are the ingredients for sugar-free Mentoes:

Before I go into those lists and their ethical and other implications, I just want to describe the uses of the activity for educational purposes and a few other things about the process.  You should try not to shake the bottle before you try it, you can time the fountain and measure its maximum height, and you can also use different combinations of drinks and mints to see if there's a difference in these. I've used fizzy water, generic cheap sugar-free drinks, sugary drinks and Diet Coke itself in sequence.

You should also do it outside.

Another thing you can do is to make a soft drink of your own gradually by adding the ingredients one by one and seeing what happens.  What surprised me about this most was that the ingredient which made the biggest difference was actually caffeine!  I'll come back to that.

What's happening then?  Well, it's not a chemical reaction. If you look at a glass with something fizzy in it, you will often notice that there are strings of bubbles rising to the surface from a few points on the glass:

"Drinking glass 00118" by © Nevit Dilmen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
(I hope that's a moving picture).  This is because a fizzy drink is a solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water and when something comes out of solution it often "crystallises" around an irregularity of some kind.  This is similar to the process whereby raindrops form around dust particles in the air.

Mentos, particularly sugar-free ones, work because they have a kind of "crazy-paving" surface like this:

"Desiccation-cracks hg" by Hannes Grobe 08:01, 27 October 2007 (UTC) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons -
When you put a mento into Diet Coke, most of the carbon dioxide in solution forms into bubbles on the corners of these cracks and comes out in one go.  Hence the fountain.

The energy of the fountain also illustrates the difference between potential and kinetic energy.  Just as a battery stores charge which can be used for all sorts of purposes, the energy used to get the gas into the drink in the first place is stored as potential energy in the coke bottle.  This also applies to shaking, bumping or dropping a bottle of pop, which will then go everywhere if you open it soon afterwards.  I realise this is obvious, but the point is that you can think of it as a way of demonstrating the storage of energy and the difference between the two types.  Interestingly, possibly just to me, if you leave a bottle which has been bumped for a bit and open it later, it won't overflow even if it hasn't lost any gas, and I think the reason for this is that it somehow loses the extra energy through entropy, although what actually happens isn't clear for me.

Although I don't wish to spoil anything, the spectacular fountain effect is less spectacular if you have sugar in either the Mentos or the Diet Coke.  My hypothesis to explain this is that dissolved sugar thickens the liquid and makes it heavier, so the energy from the bubbles comes out more slowly and can't lift the fountain as high.  Possible ways of testing this would be to weigh a bottle of ordinary Coke and a bottle of Diet Coke or to see if the lower fountain from the sugary Coke lasts longer than the higher fountain from the Diet Coke.  That's an opportunity to draw a line graph of course.

I have had a go at trying to make the "perfect" mix for this process, although missing out the aspartame.  This involved powdered calcium carbonate, citric acid crystals and gum tragacanth.  The last ingredient is supposed to be the "Mentos", which are largely made of gum Arabic.  I didn't use gum Arabic at the time because I was boycotting it for ethical reasons (at the time most gum Arabic sales were used to fund "terrorist" activity).  The idea was to mix the calcium carbonate and citric acid together before dumping them in water with the powdered gum tragacanth.  I was doing this at the request of someone else with whom I then lost touch, and the purpose was not to achieve the fountain effect, so I didn't go any further with the project.  I have also made my own cola, incidentally.

That brings me back to the ingredients lists:

To me, the Diet Coke ingredient list is at the "so bad, it's good" level because every single ingredient in it, including sometimes even the water, is a bad thing to consume!  It's actually genuinely impressive how bad they've managed to make it.  Phosphoric acid interests me because it's an inorganic acid:

This has the formula H3PO4, so it contains neither carbon nor chains or rings of atoms, which is unusual for an acid used in food or drink.  This is the ingredient famous for dissolving teeth left overnight in Coke, and if you use a strip of litmus paper on Coke it will show you that it's unusually acidic considering that it doesn't taste sour.  In my home made cola, I used lime juice, being the richest easily available natural source of citric acid, or I could've used citric acid itself.

Caramel is burnt sugar, whose safety has also been called into question.  In my cola, I replace it with muscovado sugar, which produces a paler-looking but still brown drink.

The sweeteners are usually where the arguments begin.  Acesulfame K is just uncontroversially harmful.  Aspartame is also very harmful but the allegation that it's harmful often sparks resistance.  Like many other artificial sweeteners and colours, aspartame is also used in medicines.  This is the reason the list says "Contains a source of phenylalanine" at the end, because there is a genetic condition called PKU or phenylketonuria where the consumption of significant quantities of the amino acid phenylalanine causes brain damage.  This by itself doesn't mean aspartame is any more dangerous than peanuts would be to someone who is not sensitive in that particular way.  There's a condition where fructose causes brain damage as well, so if the same thought was applied there it would mean everyone should avoid fruit.  That's not how things work.

Having said that, I would repeat that there is no doubt in my mind that aspartame is extremely harmful.

I will now explain why I don't think it's anyone's fault that it's turned out to be harmful!

Here's a model of an aspartame molecule:

Aspartame is made from two amino acids joined together by a peptide bond.  Amino acids are small molecules which are joined together to make up proteins, which are the main substances living things are made of along with water and carbohydrates.  When you eat protein, say in the form of tofu, egg white or meat, your digestive system has to deal with long chains of amino acids of all sorts which it has enzymes, which are also proteins, uncoupling and separating, breaking the same peptide bonds which are joining together the two amino acids from which aspartame is made, namely aspartic acid and phenylalanine.  Since there are all sorts of amino acids joined together in protein which we all eat every day, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that aspartame should be dangerous on that basis.  It is utterly, completely, 100% forgiveable that Monsanto, when they started to market aspartame as a sweetener, regardless of the opinion that they are evil (an opinion which I share by the way), thought it was safe.  The theory behind how the digestive system and biochemistry work would also support the idea that it is completely safe.  However, my empirical experience demonstrates that it isn't.

I'm going to quote three incidents.  I have many more in mind, but I have issues with patient confidentiality so I am only going to mention the ones which I have permission to quote.

A child has a constant wheeze and a relatively low peak flow.  There is a positive family history of asthma.  He never consumes aspartame and he has never had an asthma attack.  Unknown to anyone, he consumes a drink with added aspartame and experiences an asthma attack.

A middle-aged patient (given that this is a home ed blog I just want to point out that I am tempted to the point of torture to reveal their name but of course patient confidentiality is utterly sacrosanct, so I'm just going to drop this hint and leave it at that) suffers constant migraines with a cyclical pattern.  Their diet and lifestyle is utterly immaculate - I mean, they are utterly perfect, completely beyond any improvement - with one exception, which is that they drink a lot of Diet Coke.  Discussions about this fact do not persuade her to give it up, but interestingly there are all sorts of rationalisations about why it's okay to drink it.  Her migraines continue.  When she finally does give it up, her migraines stop too, immediately, and she hasn't had one since.

I am offered a cup of coffee sweetened with what I think is fructose.  Other than my gender dysphoria, I am an incredibly healthy person.  I don't know anyone who is as healthy as me.  Five minutes after drinking the coffee, I feel very dizzy and am unable to think clearly, then I almost lose consciousness.  I later find that the coffee was sweetened with aspartame.  I have never consumed aspartame on any other occasion.

These three incidents in my experience are enough to convince me that aspartame is unhealthy.  I'm aware of the research regarding ethanol and the idea that it causes brain tumours and also seizures.  I am not, however, basing my opinion on any of that.  Moreover, there is no reason in the world, so far as I can see, that its composition should make it dangerous to most people.  It's just two essential amino acids joined together in an equally harmless manner.  Nonetheless, it really does seem to be dangerous, and I don't know why.  However, it does occur to me that sweet substances in general are often harmful, for instance lead and beryllium compounds and antifreeze, so I would sometimes interpret a sweet taste as a danger signal.

The sweeteners in the Mentos, incidentally, are mannitol, sucralose and maltose, so far as I can see.  I'm not a massive fan of sucralose because I don't like organic compounds with chlorine groups, but apart from that the sweeteners concerned are utterly innocuous.

Right, that's it for now and I shall forthwith skip gaily down the shop for a packet of xylitol!

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Red Cabbage Water As A pH Indicator

I've just realised that this works best as a blog post.  I'll start by just saying straightforwardly how to do it.

Take a red cabbage and dice it.  Put it in some water in a saucepan, bring it to the boil and keep it there for half an hour.  Check on it periodically to make sure it doesn't boil dry.  Then strain it and put the liquid into a container.  It will be a purplish colour.

Now take some white unpatterned saucers and put the liquid into each of them.  Add various substances to them, such as spirit vinegar (which is clear), citric acid powder, bicarbonate of soda, cola (which is brown, so this won't work quite as well), chalk, toothpaste, lime juice (more acidic than lemon juice), urine and mixtures of them.  Also, very carefully, you might want to try things like caustic soda, caustic potash, bleach, sulphuric acid and so on, but if you do, add them carefully because the liquid can sputter and the chemicals are dangerous, and don't try to mix the stronger chemicals.

The liquids will change colour, indicating the acidity and alkalinity of the different substances.

That's the basic idea.  If you want more info, here it is:

This is the image of Science In The Park doing the activity in autumn 2013, in Vicky Park used as the banner for the FB group you're probably in if you're reading this:

There are substances of different pH (acidity and alkalinity) in this photo, in hummus tubs, including water.  I can't remember what I used.  There's also a measuring cylinder, further to the discussion I had with someone at Stoneygate today about equipment for science stuff.

pH is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions and hydroxyl ions in a water solution of the substance concerned.  A hydrogen ion is, in this case, a hydrogen atom without an electron, although that's not really what happens, because a hydrogen ion without an electron is usually in fact a proton because a hydrogen atom is usually a single proton with a single electron in its single orbital, like this:

The blue cloud shows where the electron is orbiting, although it has no exact location.  It's just more likely to be found in certain places, and the likelihood shifts as if it's going round the nucleus at 1/137 of the speed of light.  The next element up, helium, will have another electron going round at 2/137 of the speed of light.  As opposites attract, the proton being positively charged attracts the electron, which is negatively charged.

The more hydrogen ions there are in a water solution, the more acidic the liquid is.  Water is dihydrogen monoxide:

Therefore an acid can be thought of as something which causes hydrogen in water to float around separately.  An alkali, on the other hand, is a substance which causes hydroxyl groups - the "OH" bits of the H2O - to do the same.  An alkali which hasn't dissolved in water is a base.  There are substances which do both, such as some amino acids, which are both acid and alkaline.  However, the hydrogen and hydroxyl ions needn't be from the water itself, but from the substances.

The pH scale ranges from zero to fourteen, with acids at the bottom and alkalis at the top. Caustic soda, or sodium hydroxide, is one of the most powerful alkalis known with a pH of fourteen.  The scale is logarithmic - each step is ten times the previous one - and it's a measurement of concentration of hydrogen and hydroxyl ions.

Organic acids, which are often found in living things, are generally weaker than inorganic, also known as mineral, acids, although they can be quite strong.  Examples of organic acids include ethanoic (acetic) acid, which is in vinegar and is the end of a process where life gets energy out of sugar, then ethanol (common alcohol) and finally acetic acid and is also used for defence by spider-like animals called vinegaroons (which turn up in one of the Harry Potter films):

"Whip scorpion" by Glenn Bartolotti - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons -

Other organic acids are citric acid, which is in all living things but associated with lemons and other citrus fruits, formic acid, which ants use to defend themselves and makes them taste lemony (I speak from experience - I used to eat ants before I went veggie) and is also in nettle stings (along with lots of other things such as histamine), oxalic acid, which is in rhubarb leaves and is a corrosive poison and also makes up the kidney stones you get when you overdose on vitamin C, tartaric acid, which is in sherbert, and ascorbic acid, which is part of vitamin C.  Although organic acids are acidic, they can become alkaline after the body processes them, so you can eat a whole load of acidic foods and they can reduce the acidity of your body.  Often things which are described as acids are only technically acids and their acidity may not be harmful or relevant, such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and amino acids.

Inorganic acids are sometimes in organic life forms, such as the hydrochloric acid in the stomach.  This was first discovered after a Canadian, Alexis St Martin, suffered a gunshot wound and it was found that his stomach produced a liquid able to dissolve a pig's rib completely within ten hours.  Phosphoric acid is the acid put into colas which stops them from causing people who drink them from being sick due to the enormous amount of sugar they have in them.  My version of cola uses citric acid, or usually lime juice in fact.  Onions make sulphuric acid in the eyes when they're cut which is why the eyes water when that happens.

Inorganic acids can be stronger than organic ones because they are often smaller with respect to the number of hydrogen ions they contain.

Alkalis are less well-known than acids but they include caustic soda - sodium hydroxide - which is good for making soap, calcium carbonate, which is limestone, calcite and chalk and can be used as an antacid in the stomach, and sodium bicarbonate, which is used for baking scones but of course also for doing the carbon dioxide thing.

As for the indicators, i.e. the substances which change colour according to how acidic or alkaline the substance they're dipped into is, the really good ones are used in litmus paper.  Litmus uses pigments from lichen, which is this stuff:

"N2 Lichen" by Roantrum - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -

These are fungi and algae living together, and can contain pigments which change colour when they are exposed to acids or alkalis.  They are also used to dye this sort of thing:

The stuff in red cabbage water which indicates pH is anthocyanin, which is also found in a lot of other plants.  Coloured petals are often that colour because the stuff in them is an anthocyanin and the pH in them is at a certain level.

Finally, if you ever want to eat blue food, make scones with red cabbage water and they will come out turquoise!

Monday, 24 August 2015

Chaucer School Closing

This is going to be a bit of a weird post for someone who home edded.  I have long said that our own experiences in schools are a big factor in our decision to facilitate our children's choice to go to school or not, and in theory to change their minds back and forth at any time.  They didn't choose to go, so the complications in continuing to facilitate that decision once schooling was involved didn't arise.  Sarada and I, of course, went to school.

My compulsory educational history involves an overcrowded village primary school, which was a fairly bad experience, a small village school, which was more positive, and a large but not overcrowded bilateral, which was both good and bad.  This last was the Geoffrey Chaucer School, and was at the time probably the closest thing Kent had to a state comprehensive school.

As of this July, the school I know as the Geoffrey Chaucer School has closed down due to "poor performance".  If you are going to buy completely into the concept of the quality of education being measurable by the methods Ofsted uses, this is probably entirely valid and the surprising things about it were that it wasn't closed down earlier and that it didn't seem to improve.  I only have the two data points, or rather the line followed by the point, of my time at the school and the fact of its closure.

My experience of the school was mixed.  In terms of exam results, it was not good.  My grade C at A-level RE was the highest grade anyone had ever achieved in that subject.  The majority of pupils entered for O-level German didn't even get grades, let alone pass.  There was also a major issue with the gender mix.  At the time, since Kent still had the 11+, but girls who passed went to a different school.  On the other hand, girls and boys who failed could go to the Chaucer non-selective stream but boys who passed went into the selective stream (oh, and so did I but that's another story), which to my mind seems to be a social experiment designed to see how thoroughly inter-gender relations can be messed with.  It's quite a bit more than bad.  It is in fact thoroughly appalling, but at least it's come to an end now.  Presumably it stopped years ago, but if it didn't the closure of the school will have brought it to an end, which is a good thing.  Unfortunately, if that is what's happened, it's a mere side-effect, which brings me to my point.

I enjoyed my time at the Chaucer.  I can't say I found it educational in terms of the explicit curriculum, but one thing my experience did not include much of was bullying.  In general, it was a friendly, genial place, doubtless helped by the affluence of its intake, but it was nonetheless so and just because of the crapulence of other places, there's no need for me to feel bad about my privilege if that privilege is just how it should be for everyone.  Again, this is my personal experience.  Other people's time there was doubtless less positive than mine.

I've noticed how much bullying seems to be part of many adults' past and of their children's present and although there was a lot of bad behaviour towards me back then, most of it doesn't fit the model of bullying.  There was very little of that at the Chaucer.  People were friendly to each other, there were good relationships between staff and pupils and social activities were inclusive.  Some of that might be nostalgia, so anyone else who has experience could chip in.

Unfortunately, none of that seems to have been taken into consideration in the closure of the school.  I may be wrong, but I find it hard to imagine a school with a major bullying problem but "good" exam results being closed down  for that reason.  The other way round is easy to imagine, and in fact I imagine it's relatively common.

All this is presumption of course.  However, a school out of which people tend to emerge emotionally messed up in any way is going to damage the prospects of its pupils just as much as one with a culture of exam-based underachievement.  My school did in fact have some issues there due to the gender mix, and it had terrible exam results, but in relative terms it was a social success judging by the people I still know who went there. Clearly my hostility to schooling per se is not going to lead me to  do more than damn with faint praise, but even so, the Chaucer was, at least for me and in my experience when I was there, a good school in terms of me being happy, having friends and generally having as good an experience as I could under the circumstances, even though I came out with pretty poor exam results, and in that sense it was by no means a failure.

I just wonder to what extent good schools with bad exam results get closed down and bad school with good exam results stay open, and what the consequences are for people who have attended them.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Why I Became A Herbalist

There's no one reason why I became a herbalist.  In fact, there are notably many reasons, which in a sense means it's probably the right thing for me to do unless they amount to rationalisations.  Here are a few of them, arranged in bullet points because I'm lazy:
  • It was an ethical and environmentally sustainable thing to do.  Up until that point, it had proven effectively impossible to find paid work which wasn't ideologically unsound in some way.  Plants just grow whether or not they're patented or otherwise appropriated by capitalism (or feudalism for that matter).  They can also have a very short supply chain, particularly if you're obtaining them directly yourself. This is why I have a bias towards using plants which are indigenous to this country and "weeds", i.e. plants which grow vigorously and are invasive under certain conditions.  Using local plants means there is no use of fossil fuels at all when I wildcraft them and there are also some who think that local plants are the most appropriate for local health conditions.  I didn't need to rely on the ethical decisions of anyone else to do it, so I wasn't trying to wash my hands of anything it was inappropriate to do so.
  • It was an extension of veganism, in two ways.  Given the use of animal procedures in medical research and in the derivation of certain drugs, it made sense to me to pursue medicine which was not tested on animals, or if it was, that testing had no connection to any money I was sending anywhere.  Nor is there anything like insulin derived from genetically modified organisms or premarin from mare's urine in this.
  • The other way in which it's an extension of veganism is that to me, herbalism is akin to dietetics.  In order to adopt a plant-based diet, I decided to research nutrition.  This got out of hand and ultimately turned into studying medicine.  When I initially went vegan, I decided to plan my diet from the ground up rather than just swapping products.  This hasn't quite stayed that way due to formerly fussy children.
  • My MA dissertation was into supervenience and dialectic.  This includes the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and therefore lends itself to holistic views of the world.  In a way, my academic work segued straight into herbalism, which considering I'm a philosopher might seem a bit strange.
  • It's a form of praxis.  Just as Yoga often involves a balance between the abstract and the concrete and radical political theory a similar combination of practical action and political philosophy, my approach to herbalism has a similar combination.  I'm a philosopher in a similar sense to that in which a table is a table, but I needed to anchor myself, and I did this with herbalism.
  • In the circumstances where the chips are down and some mishap befalls civilisation, I want to have useful skills and experience to help others and possibly use them for bargaining purposes.  Herbalism is this.
  • It was a way of acquiring medical knowledge, skills and experience without attempting to pursue the option of qualifying as a doctor, an option which is unavailable to me.
  • It meant I could help improve and maintain the well-being of those closest to me without recourse to having to trust strangers.
  • Ultimately, and I kept this very quiet because at the time I was thoroughly ground under the (flat) heel of the TERF jackboot, it gave me an option to alter my gender presentation if I couldn't resist it any longer, and of course in the end that's exactly what happened.
There's probably a lot more but that's all I can remember for now.

Friday, 24 July 2015

How Not To Spam

If you live in the UK, you can buy my book 'Here Be Dragons' (and look inside it) here and if you're in the States, you can get it here.  Oh, and look inside it of course.

I have now succeeded in getting past the baggage which came with writing and publishing it.  My task now is in the area of publicity, and being able to distinguish between being too pushy and not being pushy enough.

I know people don't like spam, so I assiduously avoid being spammy.  The trouble is, however, that I don't understand why people hate spam and what they perceive to be it, and the two are connected.  When I see spam, my first reaction is not annoyance but puzzlement.  I wonder why people bother to send it because it seems futile.  I suspect it corresponds to r/K selection theory, although apparently that's outdated.

If you're an oyster, not only do you get free gender reassignment as part of your normal life span and a load of vegans arguing about whether it's okay to murder you, but also you get to produce literal clouds of gametes, either sperm or eggs.  Up to a hundred million eggs a year in fact, so it looks like the approach taken to reproduction by female oysters is more like that taken to reproduction by male humans than female ones, so the gender reassignment involved is not really very impressive at all.  When these eggs get fertilised and start to develop into oysters, they will mostly die or be eaten by fish and the like but a few will survive.  The advantage to the parent oyster is that they can get away with what we would think of as negligent parenting without it stopping them from having grandchildren, so the whole hideous business, from our perspective, continues.  This is known as an "r strategy".

As a human being, if my approach was to produce a hundred million babies and abandon them to the vagaries of fate so that most of them died but I had a few grandchildren would possibly get me arrested unless I happened to be a sperm donor or a dictator or something.  Also, if I happen to be the proud possessor of ovaries, the situation gets even more complicated because an unprecedently vast number of surrogate mothers would become necessary, or possibly a massive baby bottling plant or something, and - well, we're not meant to do that are we?  One reason why school is such a strange idea of course, but I've been into that before:

(Can't believe I said "are a fungi" on that video!)

Instead of all that, humans currently have what is known as a "K strategy" with reproduction.  We have a few children and spend loads of time and energy parenting them. We have that in common with other species, but it seems to be more common among mammals and birds than most other animals.  Even fish aren't keen on it.  It's interesting to speculate on what a K strategy with marketing would be, but I won't do that here.

This brings me back to spam.  Spam is an r strategy game.  Spammers emulate oysters by producing huge clouds of emails, almost all of which are ignored.  There is presumably the very occasional response, which keeps them going.  Since like almost everyone else, I don't respond to spam, I don't understand why anyone does and consequently the main thing I feel when I see spam is bafflement at two categories of people:  spammers and people who respond to spam.  I sometimes wonder if they're the same people because presumably they must think it works, so maybe it works on them.  Maybe there's a group of people who spend their time both sending and responding happily to spam and they're all one little cosy community.

One thing spam does not do to me, though, is irritate me.  Nor do I understand why anyone would find it irritating.  Even so, I am aware that many people are annoyed by it, and I presume the reason for that is that it feels to them like they're being used and not respected as human beings, which they're apparently not accustomed to feeling, possibly because they are mercifully distanced from the sheer indifference and uncaring nature of the world we live in.  It's probably true that spam is disrespectful, but disrespect is perfectly normal and not confined to email.

Since I don't know when that kind of behaviour annoys people, I try not to do it, in the same way as in the past I have tried not to stalk people.  When I have something I wish to push on people, I am stuck with the problem of not wanting to be pushy, in other words to use people, or to be perceived as such.  I also have a problem with splitting - I tend to try to simplify things by going to extremes.  I hope transitioning will help with this and I'm aware that I do it more when I'm stressed.

The result of all this is that I don't promote myself at all most of the time, and the fact that I happen to have a new book out might not be widely noticed.  This is not so much an r or K strategy of reproduction as a strategy for extinction.

Having said all this, apparently the whole idea of r/K selection theory has been replaced by the something called a life history paradigm, about which I know very little but am about to learn more.

So anyway, please buy my book!  Is that pushy?  I have no idea.