August 2015

Letter for August 2015

Rain, heat and wind. Some garden survived last month and this including 3 tomato plants that now have a few little tomatoes growing. Summing up this month: Harry did some difficult work on the garage and got his concrete mixer back, I cleaned the house, we survived the heat, we enjoyed two good visits and the dog had a good time barking at visitors. Our health is fine despite being a month older and probably not all that much wiser.

This month there is material on the visits, the garage, attitudes to the poor, memories of living with relatives, harvesting in the 1800s, sentence construction, and why some people are fat. Enjoy.

Visit from Merrilee and Aydon

Merrilee and Aydon

Merrilee and Aydon arrived came to Bengy by train on the 21st and left of the 24th. We were the first stop on an extended holiday including meeting up with Merrilee’s brother and his wife in Ireland (for golf) and then going on to Scotland (for golf). The golf widows were going to do some drinking, I understand. It was a very pleasant visit with much discussion of politics and the like – a wine, food and talk visit with no golf. The photo is a serious response to Harry holding forth. We had the neighbour, Sebastien, came over to meet Merrilee so that if something happened to us, there would be someone to inform her. It was a pleasant chatty evening.

Visit from Paul and Pam

Paul and Pam

Paul and Pam drove up from Italy and arrived without warning on the 29th and left on the 31st. Madam Fournier was busy with not filled up so they had a place to sleep. This was the first time we had met Pam and she was great. There was a lot of catching up to do as the last time we had seen Paul was the summer of 2009. Paul was keen to drive around the local villages to show Pam the feel of France. He remembered his way around surprisingly well. I went with them to Bourges to see the cathedral. It was the first really large old church Pam had seen and it was the first time Paul had been inside. It was Sunday and so I heard the organ for the first time. Also on Harry’s instructions as we set off, we came to it from behind and it is much more impressive and beautiful what way then from the front.

approaching Bourges cathedral from the back

Progress on the garage

There was terrible weather for at the start and middle of the month and Harry was busy with other things but the parts of a beam were made ready to be assembled. Between visits, at the end of the month, the form work for the concrete pillar was made and the beam put together between it and the garage wall.

making form work for concrete pillar

attaching beam to garage wall

setting beam on form work and attaching to steel reinforcing

The Poor

There are two ways to view the poor. One is that there are always poor and a measure of society is how well the poor can live and how few the number. But through luck, general circumstances (economic conditions, weather, war etc.), and personal circumstances (health, intelligence, education, robbery, location, status etc.) there will be the poor. Pope Francis expresses this sort of view - we need to be kind and charitable to the poor, it is the moral duty of the more fortunate. This is how most of the world’s cultures view the poor, other than the Anglo-Saxon mainstream.

Here is a description of the other way to view the poor from a George Monbiot article in the Guardian:

Kindness is cruelty; cruelty is kindness: this is the core belief of compassionate conservatism. If the state makes excessive provision for the poor, it traps them in a culture of dependency, destroying their self-respect, locking them into unemployment. Cuts and coercion are a moral duty, to be pursued with the holy fervour of inquisitors overseeing an auto da fé (means the public ritual of penitence and shaming before burning or other sentences - JK).

This belief persists despite reams of countervailing evidence, showing that severity does nothing to cure the structural causes of unemployment. In Britain it is used to justify a £12bn reduction of a social security system already so harsh that it drives some recipients to suicide. The belief arises from a deep and dearly held fallacy that has persisted for more than 200 years.

Poverty was once widely understood as a social condition: it described the fate of those who did not possess property. England’s old poor law, introduced in 1597 and 1601, had its own cruelties, some of which were extreme. But as the US academics Fred Block and Margaret Somers explain in their fascinating book The Power of Market Fundamentalism, those who implemented it seemed to recognise that occasional unemployment was an intrinsic feature of working life.

In 1786 however, as economic crises threw rising numbers on to the mercy of their parishes, the clergyman Joseph Townsend sought to recast poverty as a moral or even biological condition. “The poor know little of the motives which stimulate the higher ranks to action – pride, honour, and ambition,” he argued in his Dissertation on the Poor Laws. “In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad them onto labour; yet our laws have said, they shall never hunger.”

Thomas Malthus expands on this theme in his Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798. Poor relief, he maintained, causes poverty. It destroys the work ethic, reducing productivity. It also creates an incentive to reproduce, as payments rise with every family member. The higher the population, the hungrier the poor became: kindness resulted in cruelty. Poverty, he argued, should be tackled through shame (“dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful”) and the withdrawal of assistance from all able-bodied workers. Nature should take its course: if people were left to starve to death, the balance between population and food supply would be restored. Malthus ignored the means by which people limit their reproduction or increase their food supply, characterising the poor, in effect, as unthinking beasts.

His argument was controversial, but support grew rapidly among the propertied classes. In 1832 the franchise was extended to include more property owners: in other words, those who paid the poor rate. The poor, of course, were not entitled to vote. In the same year, the government launched a royal commission into the operation of the poor laws.

Like Malthus, the commissioners blamed the problems of the rural poor not on structural factors but on immorality, improvidence and low productivity, all caused by the system of poor relief, which had “educated a new generation in idleness, ignorance and dishonesty”. It called for the abolition of “outdoor relief” for able-bodied people. Help should be offered only in circumstances so shameful, degrading and punitive that anyone would seek to avoid them: namely the workhouse. The government responded with the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which instituted, for the sake of the poor, a regime of the utmost cruelty. Destitute families were broken up and, in effect, imprisoned.

The commission was a fraud. It began with fixed conclusions and sought evidence to support them. Its interviews were conducted with like-minded members of the propertied classes, who were helped towards the right replies with leading questions. Anecdote took the place of data.

In reality, poverty in the countryside had risen as a result of structural forces over which the poor had no control. After the Napoleonic wars, the price of wheat slumped, triggering the collapse of rural banks and a severe credit crunch. Swayed by the arguments of David Ricardo, the government re-established the gold standard, which locked in austerity and aggravated hardship, much as George Osborne’s legal enforcement of a permanent budget surplus will do. Threshing machines reduced the need for labour in the autumn and winter, when employment was most precarious. Cottage industries were undercut by urban factories, while enclosure prevented the poor from producing their own food.

Far from undermining employment, poor relief sustained rural workers during the winter months, ensuring that they remained available for hire when they were needed by farms in the spring and summer. By contrast to the loss of agricultural productivity that Malthus predicted and the commission reported, between 1790 and 1834 wheat production more than doubled.

As Block and Somers point out, the rise in unemployment and extreme poverty in the 1820s and 1830s represented the first great failure of Ricardian, laissez-faire economics. But Malthus’s doctrines allowed this failure to be imputed to something quite different: the turpitude of the poor. Macroeconomic policy mistakes were blamed on the victims. Does that sound familiar?

This helps to explain the persistence of the fallacy. Those who promoted laissez-faire economics required an explanation when the magic of the markets failed to deliver their promised utopia. Malthus gave them the answer they needed.

And still does. People are poor and unemployed, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith claimed in the Sunday Times, because of “the damaging culture of welfare dependency”. Earlier this month, Duncan Smith, in a burst of Malthusiasm, sought to restrict child benefit to two children per family, to discourage the poor from reproducing. Analysis by the Wellcome Trust suggests that the government, which will place 350 psychologists in job centres, now treats unemployment as a mental health disorder.

The media’s campaign of vilification associates social security with disgrace, and proposes even more humiliation, exhortation, intrusion, bullying and sanctions. This Thursday, the new household income figures are likely to show a sharp rise in child poverty, after sustained reductions under the Labour government. Doubtless the poor will be blamed for improvidence and feckless procreation, and urged to overcome their moral failings through aspiration. For 230 years, this convenient myth has resisted all falsification. Expect that to persist.

Living with relatives

My cousin Marcia asked me once about how often I lived away from home and how common that had been in the family, because she was never sent to live with a relative. In my history it was fairly common. I lived with my aunt Marjorie and uncle Walter a lot when I was in high school in Regina. I lived with aunt Mildred and uncle Ronnie a few summers when I was younger. Two of my school years were spent in Yellowgrass with my Wight grandparents. One summer I stayed with Madeline on the Day farm. There were sleep-overs with a number of relatives. One winter we all (Mom, Dad and I) stayed with uncle Bert and aunt Bea. I spent several months with my cousin Milly. My cousin Lorna Campbell often spent some of the summer with us (Apparently this was a tradition for her mother Phyllis had stayed on the same farm every summer when she was young “with aunt Sophie and uncle John”, my grandparents). Other cousins were often with us. And I think it was fairly common for other cousins to be sent to various relatives. I thought this was the norm for families.

Of course, it turns out it is not that common. Most families are smaller than my mother and father’s and a child would not have an infinity of aunts and uncles. And usually relatives cannot make demands on each other as large as taking a child in for some length of time. And although my cousins were also moved about, it may have been especially true of me because of my father’s illness and then death.

My mother once apologized for not having more time for me as a child and I was surprised because I thought of her as an excellent mother. Her reply was that she had just not realized all the things that could happen to a child when it was out of sight. I assume she meant either the times I lived away from home or the time I spent in unsupervised play. I assumed she meant the play. She had been somewhat taken aback when I returned to Canada that I felt an attachment to a Mrs. Hyer because Mom apparently didn’t know that I used to walk to the Hyer house and visit her. She had crickets and I was fascinated by them – the only house I knew that chirped. Now I think she may have meant both. I have no complaints. My upbringing was excellent I still think.

Harvesting in the 1800s – part of Evie Wight’s recording of Gaylord Wight’s memories

My grandfather, Orson Clark Krewson, used to tell me about how wheat was harvested in the late 1800’s. It was pretty much done by hand. The wheat was cut with a cradle, which was merely a scythe with several fingers attached to it to catch the wheat so that it could be thrown into a swath. Five acres was about all that a good strong man could cut with a cradle. The next operation was to tie the wheat into a bundle. A man, or a boy, would first kick some of the wheat into part of a bundle and then reach as far forward as he could with a rake to accumulate enough for a bundle. Then he would tie the bundle with some of the straw. They didn’t use binder twine and straw was a very neat way to tie a bundle. Towards evening, all the hands would stook up, that is, they would make stooks of all the bundles that had been made that day.

Using pitch forks, the bundles would then be loaded onto racks and hauled near the barn and stacked. In the winter, they would thresh a few bundles at a time. One area of the barn was a threshing floor where they would beat the wheat out of the heads by use of a flail. The flail consisted of two pieces of wood tied together end to end with a flexible leather tie. The club end that beat the wheat was about twenty or twenty four inches long, like a two by four. The other piece of wood was much longer because that was the handle. When the wheat was well flailed, they pitched the straw away.

There were two doors to the threshing floor, one on each wall opposite each other, which could then be opened to let the wind blow through to winnow the wheat. Elevating the threshed wheat with a scoop shovel and letting it pour back to the floor again would hurry the process the winnowing the wheat, or blowing the chaff away.

Sentence construction

I have read something on the order of parts in sentences which has surprised me. Subject, object and verb could theoretically be in any order but languages largely (close to 9 in 10) put the subject first. This kind of makes sense – we want to state the topic or the actor first to get our bearings for the rest of the sentence. Then it could be verb followed by object or object followed by verb. It is SOV or SVO. More languages are SOV especially older, smaller, tribal languages but also some big popular ones. This has led scholars to assume the SOV is the natural form.

However, a number of languages have changed in their history from SOV to SVO (English for one) – but none have gone the other way. This means that languages tend to move away from grammar and towards syntax (or away from marking words with their role in the sentence and towards enforcing a standard word order to indicate each word’s role). A number the reasons have been put forward to explain that tendency.

In recent experiments groups of English speakers (SVO) and groups of Turkish speakers (SOV) communicated using gestures. When they had to improvise their gestures, both groups mainly used SOV constructions, but when they were taught a lexicon of gestures ahead of the attempt to communicate, both groups mainly used SVO constructs.

These results fit with the difference between new sign languages that had no input from existing sign languages – all SOV, and creoles made from two of more existing languages – all SVO. Even creoles created from two languages that are both SOV are SVO. An existing lexicon really does matter to the type that is formed.

SVO languages lose their grammar and become easier to use (perhaps not easier to learn or maybe that too). As they lose grammar, the word order becomes more strict. With SOV languages word order can be permissive because the grammar organizes the words. The notion is that with very complex sentences, grammar becomes taxing before word order does so that complex sentences are less work in SVO.

Why are some people fat?

Pretty well everyone who is interested in obesity knows that it is not as simple as taking in more calories than are used. That does not explain what goes on when one person eats less and exercises more but gains more than someone else. 19 scientists from MIT and Harvard have published in the New England Journal of Medicine a breakthrough in understanding obesity.

There are three kinds of fat cells: brown which adult humans don’t have, beige which produces heat and energy from fat, and white which stores fat rather than burn it. So the more beige fat you have, the less fat you store. The precursor to fat cells can mature into either beige or white fat cells and this is controlled by a pair of genes. There is another gene that turns on or off those two genes. It is a master switch for the ratio of beige to white fat.

A mutation in this master gene is the root cause of obesity.

This is probably not the whole story but it is a pathway that might end up providing ways to avoid obesity. Good solid metabolic science is finally on the scene.

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About Janet Kwasniak

Retired pensioner, raised in Canada but UK citizen living in France, interested in Science and many other things.

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