Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for May 11th, 2019

Is evolutionary science due for a major overhaul?

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Kevin Laland, professor of behavioural and evolutionary biology at University of St Andrews in Scotland, and project leader of the extended evolutionary synthesis research programme, whose latest book is Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (2017), writes at Aeon:

When researchers at Emory University in Atlanta trained mice to fear the smell of almonds (by pairing it with electric shocks), they found, to their consternation, that both the children and grandchildren of these mice were spontaneously afraid of the same smell. That is not supposed to happen. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is impossible. A mouse should not be born with something its parents have learned during their lifetimes, any more than a mouse that loses its tail in an accident should give birth to tailless mice.

If you are not a biologist, you’d be forgiven for being confused about the state of evolutionary science. Modern evolutionary biology dates back to a synthesis that emerged around the 1940s-60s, which married Charles Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s discoveries of how genes are inherited. The traditional, and still dominant, view is that adaptations – from the human brain to the peacock’s tail – are fully and satisfactorily explained by natural selection (and subsequent inheritance). Yet as novel ideas flood in from genomics, epigenetics and developmental biology, most evolutionists agree that their field is in flux. Much of the data implies that evolution is more complex than we once assumed.

Some evolutionary biologists, myself included, are calling for a broader characterisation of evolutionary theory, known as the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES). A central issue is whether what happens to organisms during their lifetime – their development – can play important and previously unanticipated roles in evolution. The orthodox view has been that developmental processes are largely irrelevant to evolution, but the EES views them as pivotal. Protagonists with authoritative credentials square up on both sides of this debate, with big-shot professors at Ivy League universities and members of national academies going head-to-head over the mechanisms of evolution. Some people are even starting to wonder if a revolution is on the cards.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 May 2019 at 9:28 am

Posted in Books, Evolution, Science

The price of plenty: how beef changed America

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Joshua Specht writes in the Guardian:

The meatpacking mogul Jonathan Ogden Armour could not abide socialist agitators. It was 1906, and Upton Sinclair had just published The Jungle, an explosive novel revealing the grim underside of the American meatpacking industry. Sinclair’s book told the tale of an immigrant family’s toil in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, tracing the family’s physical, financial and emotional collapse. The Jungle was not Armour’s only concern. The year before, the journalist Charles Edward Russell’s book The Greatest Trust in the World had detailed the greed and exploitation of a packing industry that came to the American dining table “three times a day … and extorts its tribute”.

In response to these attacks, Armour, head of the enormous Chicago-based meatpacking firm Armour & Co, took to the Saturday Evening Post to defend himself and his industry. Where critics saw filth, corruption and exploitation, Armour saw cleanliness, fairness and efficiency. If it were not for “the professional agitators of the country”, he claimed, the nation would be free to enjoy an abundance of delicious and affordable meat.

Armour and his critics could agree on this much: they lived in a world unimaginable 50 years before. In 1860, most cattle lived, died and were consumed within a few hundred miles’ radius. By 1906, an animal could be born in Texas, slaughtered in Chicago and eaten in New York. Americans rich and poor could expect to eat beef for dinner. The key aspects of modern beef production – highly centralised, meatpacker-dominated and low-cost – were all pioneered during that period.

For Armour, cheap beef and a thriving centralised meatpacking industry were the consequence of emerging technologies such as the railroad and refrigeration coupled with the business acumen of a set of honest and hard-working men like his father, Philip Danforth Armour. According to critics, however, a capitalist cabal was exploiting technological change and government corruption to bankrupt traditional butchers, sell diseased meat and impoverish the worker.

Ultimately, both views were correct. The national market for fresh beef was the culmination of a technological revolution, but it was also the result of collusion and predatory pricing. The industrial slaughterhouse was a triumph of human ingenuity as well as a site of brutal labour exploitation. Industrial beef production, with all its troubling costs and undeniable benefits, reflected seemingly contradictory realities.

Beef production would also help drive far-reaching changes in US agriculture. Fresh-fruit distribution began with the rise of the meatpackers’ refrigerator cars, which they rented to fruit and vegetable growers. Production of wheat, perhaps the US’s greatest food crop, bore the meatpackers’ mark. In order to manage animal feed costs, Armour & Co and Swift & Co invested heavily in wheat futures and controlled some of the country’s largest grain elevators. In the early 20th century, an Armour & Co promotional map announced that “the greatness of the United States is founded on agriculture”, and depicted the agricultural products of each US state, many of which moved through Armour facilities.

Beef was a paradigmatic industry for the rise of modern industrial agriculture, or agribusiness. As much as a story of science or technology, modern agriculture is a compromise between the unpredictability of nature and the rationality of capital. This was a lurching, violent process that sawmeatpackers displace the risks of blizzards, drought, disease and overproduction on to cattle ranchers. Today’s agricultural system works similarly. In poultry, processors like Perdue and Tyson use an elaborate system of contracts and required equipment and feed purchases to maximise their own profits while displacing risk on to contract farmers. This is true with crop production as well. As with 19th-century meatpacking, relatively small actors conduct the actual growing and production, while companies like Monsanto and Cargill control agricultural inputs and market access.

The transformations that remade beef production between the end of the American civil war in 1865 and the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906 stretched from the Great Plains to the kitchen table. Before the civil war, cattle raising was largely regional, and in most cases, the people who managed cattle out west were the same people who owned them. Then, in the 1870s and 80s, improved transport, bloody victories over the Plains Indians, and the American west’s integration into global capital markets sparked a ranching boom. Meanwhile, Chicago meatpackers pioneered centralised food processing. Using an innovative system of refrigerator cars and distribution centres, they began to distribute fresh beef nationwide. Millions of cattle were soon passing through Chicago’s slaughterhouses each year. By 1890, the Big Four meatpacking companies – Armour & Co, Swift & Co, Morris & Co and the GH Hammond Co – directly or indirectly controlled the majority of the nation’s beef and pork.

But in the 1880s, the big Chicago meatpackers faced determined opposition at every stage from slaughter to sale. Meatpackers fought with workers as they imposed a brutally exploitative labour regime. Meanwhile, attempts to transport freshly butchered beef faced opposition from railroads who found higher profits transporting live cattle east out of Chicago and to local slaughterhouses in eastern cities. Once pre-slaughtered and partially processed beef – known as “dressed beef” – reached the nation’s many cities and towns, the packers fought to displace traditional butchers and woo consumers sceptical of eating meat from an animal slaughtered a continent away.

The consequences of each of these struggles persist today. A small number of firms still control most of the country’s – and by now the world’s – beef. They draw from many comparatively small ranchers and cattle feeders, and depend on a low-paid, mostly invisible workforce. The fact that this set of relationships remains so stable, despite the public’s abstract sense that something is not quite right, is not the inevitable consequence of technological change but the direct result of the political struggles of the late 19th century.


In the slaughterhouse, someone was always willing to take your place. This could not have been far from the mind of 14-year-old Vincentz Rutkowski as he stooped, knife in hand, in a Swift & Co facility in summer 1892. For up to 10 hours each day, Vincentz trimmed tallow from cattle paunches. The job required strong workers who were low to the ground, making it ideal for boys like Rutkowski, who had the beginnings of the strength but not the size of grown men. For the first two weeks of his employment, Rutkowski shared his job with two other boys. As they became more skilled, one of the boys was fired. Another few weeks later, the other was also removed, and Rutkowski was expected to do the work of three people.

The morning that final co-worker left, on 30 June, Rutkowski fell behind the disassembly line’s frenetic pace. After just three hours of working alone, the boy failed to dodge a carcass swinging toward him. It struck his knife hand, driving the tool into his left arm near the elbow. The knife cut muscle and tendon, leaving Rutkowski with lifelong injuries.

The labour regime that led to Rutkowski’s injury was integral to large-scale meatpacking. A packinghouse was a masterpiece of technological and organisational achievement, but that was not enough to slaughter millions of cattle annually. Packing plants needed cheap, reliable and desperate labour. They found it via the combination of mass immigration and a legal regime that empowered management, checked the nascent power of unions and provided limited liability for worker injury. The Big Four’s output depended on worker quantity over worker quality.

Meatpacking lines, pioneered in the 1860s in Cincinnati’s pork packinghouses, were the first modern production lines. The innovation was that they kept products moving continuously, eliminating downtime and requiring workers to synchronise their movements to keep pace. This idea was enormously influential. In his memoirs, Henry Ford explained that his idea for continuous motion assembly “came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers use in dressing beef”.

Packing plants relied on a brilliant intensification of the division of labour. This division increased productivity because it simplified slaughter tasks. Workers could then be trained quickly, and because the tasks were also synchronised, everyone had to match the pace of the fastest worker.

When cattle first entered one of these slaughterhouses, they encountered an armed man walking toward them on an overhead plank. Whether by a hammer swing to the skull or a spear thrust to the animal’s spinal column, the (usually achieved) goal was to kill with a single blow. Assistants chained the animal’s legs and dragged the carcass from the room. The carcass was hoisted into the air and brought from station to station along an overhead rail.

Next, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

11 May 2019 at 8:39 am

Rediscovering and reclaiming the past: The Brown Betty teapot

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Interesting story of the classic British teapot, the Brown Betty, newly available with some improvements (stackability, for example). A quick search found local sources. If you’re a tea-drinker, this is a bit of history. A “cup” in teapot usage is 6 oz (not 8 oz, the standard measuring cup), so a four-cup teapot holds 24 oz and will pour 4 teacups or 2 large mugs.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 May 2019 at 8:27 am

Posted in Caffeine, Daily life

The Solar Flare and Energy

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Phoenix Artisan’s The Solar Flare is a striking brush. Now that the quality of synthetic knots can be taken for granted—they’re all quite good these days—attention shifts to aesthetics and perhaps knot size. I like this look of this brush, which has a 24mm knot. It performed admirably with Mama Bear’s Energy shave stick, making a scrumptious lather.

I find the Phoenix Artisan Double Open Comb, here in the aluminum version, to be highly comfortable and highly efficient after I backed off about 1/4 turn from fully tightened. Today’s shave was excellent, with a splash of D.R. Harris Marlborough providing a nice finish.

Today’s outing is up-island to Cowichan Bay, where we will have lunch with some of The Wife’s family. It’s being a sterling visit.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 May 2019 at 8:10 am

Posted in Shaving

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