How Would You Measure Production

Measuring agricultural productivity is easy, right? Kilogrammes per hectare and you’re done. But that’s almost the least interesting thing the land is producing, or so I thought. Then a tweet passed my way yesterday.

Calories per acre - the new metric to follow.

I saw that because someone I follow was enthusiastic.

Glad to see that @Harvest2050’s buying in to calories per acre! Do we have a bandwagon yet?

And despite myself, and despite the fact that I know that actual discussion is all but impossible over there, I tried to make a case for nutrition per hectare. Predictably, I guess, that ended up with a smug pat-on-the-head putdown that sent me whizzing to the channels under my control, ready to think a little more deeply about how to measure agricultural productivity.

If you’re an industrial farmer, growing grain to sell, then I guess kg per ha is a reasonable measure. You might even think kcal per ha a bit too fancy pants. And the less waste straw you have to deal with, the better. For a small-scale farmer, however, perhaps with a few animals to bed and feed, that straw is decidedly not waste. It is part of production. The weight of seed is important, but it isn’t the only thing.

Now go further, and imagine that you’re eating what the land produces. Maybe now kcal per ha makes a bit more sense, but only a bit more, and not only because it takes more than energy to sustain life. By that measure, half a hectare of beans and half a hectare of maize or wheat is probably less productive than a hectare of pure wheat. Cereals and pulses, however, make up for one another’s amino acid deficiencies, so the total nutrition that a person could derive from that half and half hectare is greater than from a pure hectare of either. Carve out some space in that hectare for a few rows of leafy greens and what have you, and the productivity of the land, measured as “nutrition” is even higher. Allow a few animals to process the “waste” and it is higher still.

Which is why I think nutrition per hectare is the best measure of agricultural production.

Calories are, of course, part of nutrition, but by no means the most important part over the long run. We have tables of recommended daily allowances for macronutrients like Calories (or their proxies) and for micronutrients. We could calculate nutrients per Calorie for different kinds of produce. We could even try to express productivity as the percentage of the RDA for all nutrients that would be provided by some area of land. We could do lots of things more sensible – and more difficult – than Calories per hectare.

p.s. I want to put a marker down here for a couple of things I know are important and that I am choosing to ignore for now. One is the inputs necessary to achieve the agricultural outputs. The other is the sustainability and variance of the production over time.

An Experiment in the Indieweb

Listening to @phoneboyspeaks Episode 919 about Social Network News stiffened my resolve to take back control of my online presence(s). While dismissing the Ello iOS app, as everyone else has, Dameon casually mentioned Yet Another Social Platform that he signed up for “because”. I too like to sign up for and play with all the shiny new things, but I also want to make life easier for myself and anyone who has the slightest interest in interacting with me.

So I’ve signed up for a shiny new thing.

I don’t have the technical chops to dive deep into the indieweb, but I know a man who does, so he can have my money to host an experiment. To begin with I plan on playing with a domain I’m not currently using, but the hope and (promise!) is that eventually it may all end up on the mothership. It’s all a bit flaky at the moment, because I actually have to transfer ownership of the domain 1 to Pierre. That’s cool; I trust him, and when Let’s Encrypt launches that will no longer be necessary. But I am keen to get going.

More news here when the experiment is ready for its close-up.

  1. Or pay extra for them to deal with security and suchlike additionally.

How Hard Is It to Have a Sensible Online Platform?

I like being able to put things up here on the internet, not just to feed my ego but also because I genuinely think other people may find them just a teeny bit diverting. Lord knows, it is easy enough to do that, what with all the options out there that make sharing banalities just a click away. The problem with most of those for me, however, is that I want to be the customer, not the product. I actually want to pay for the services I use. Lately, though, that hasn’t been working out too well.

Before I get to that, though, I want to complain about one of those free services, one where I didn’t actually mind being the product: Tumblr.

I liked my Tumblog. It threw up all sorts of interesting things that I might never otherwise have seen, and it enabled me to bung stuff up without too much effort that nevertheless looked reasonably presentable. Then last summer my mobile phone supplier threw a massive wobbly, unresolved to this day, which prompted me to walk away and get a new number from a new supplier. In the meantime, what with one thing and another, I hadn’t logged in to Tumblr for an age, and of course, like any good nerd, I had enabled two-factor authentication, so when I did want to log in Tumblr dutifully asked me to enter the code sent to my mobile device.

Can you see where this is going?

I emailed explaining the situation. After a bit of prodding, Tumblr sent me a bizarre set of hoops to jump through, which included sending them a copy of the photo you see above along with a link to some other “verified” photo of me. And because I did actually want back in, I took the stupid photograph, linked to another stupid photograph of myself, and waited. No dice. They couldn’t confirm that we were one and the same person and that that person “owned” my Tumblog.

A bit of me thinks that the whole thing is some gigantic prank, along the lines of “I wonder what idiotic thing we can persuade people to do,” and that the walls of Tumblr Central are papered with printouts of fools like me, for the lulz.

Anyway, the Tumblog itself stumbles on in an undead lurch, fed an occasional bit of brain thanks to an automaton I set up in happier times. And the fact is, I wouldn’t mind getting back in, for all sorts of reasons. The Merry Pranksters at Tumblr Central suggested I abandon the old one and just start again, which is sort of tempting, I have to say, but I’m not quite ready to do that.

Which brings me right round to the whole sensible online platform thing again. A while ago I switched this website from WordPress to Octopress. I enjoyed it, but the truth is that there’s just too much friction involved. I tried, and failed, to use Octopress while travelling. I tried, and failed, to lubricate the friction away. I tried, and failed, to force myself to address the problems. All of which explains why this site too, like my Tumblog, stutters on without actually having the good grace to die.

So what do I want? I’m not even sure any more. I got fed up nannying my WordPress installation, so no nannying. I want to be able to publish from any device, anywhere. I’d like to be able to make it look good, again without too much nannying. I’d even pay. Maybe I should revisit Squarespace; at $8 a month, it might just do everything I want.

Nah, that’s failure talking. There has to be a better way.

Medical Magic

In the latest Eat This Podcast, Victoria Young talks about living with, and indeed enjoying, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet™. For those of you who don’t know it, this is a very restrictive diet that people claim can reduce the symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease and, with time, perhaps even cure the disease itself. Many doctors dismiss it out of hand. But just because a medical thing requires the use of initial caps and a TM symbol doesn’t automatically make it crazy. And just because many (most?) doctors dismiss it out of hand doesn’t make it sane.

People talk about mind and body as if they were separate things, but I’ve long been of the opinion that the mind (or at any rate the brain) is just another organ, and like all the other organs, it can affect other parts of the body. People also talk about psychosomatic illnesses as if they were somehow not “real” illnesses, but that’s scant comfort to someone suffering from, say, a phobia. The thing is, the brain (or mind) being a rather powerful organ, it often has an undue influence on the rest of the body. Placebos and nocebos work, of that there is no doubt. In the case of the SCD™, though, it seems unlikely that the effects of “forbidden” foods are mediated purely through the brain. There must, I feel, be a more direct effect on the guts, possibly, as its proponents claim, through the gut flora.

On gluten, though, I am not nearly so sure. Of course there are people for whom the consumption of gluten, even unwittingly, will trigger a reaction. But I do not believe that to be true of the vast numbers who have declared themselves gluten intolerant. I’m not saying they shouldn’t eat however they choose, identify however they wish, or any of that. In fact, I declare myself to be gluten-intolerant tolerant. But I am saying that the massive expansion of wheat bellies owes less to actual gluten intolerance than to other factors.

Michael Specter’s article Against the Grain in The New Yorker is not a bad starting place if you want to read more.

Deep, Deep Ruts

I am in a mess, and for a whole slew of different reasons. This afternoon, a few minutes ago, I recognised a definite warning sign. In pursuit of doing something new and different, I got completely stuck in how to do it instead of what to do. Classic prevarication. Figure out a way to make the process more efficient before I have even decided what the outcome of the process should be. So I spent the better part of an hour futzing around with Workflow on the iPhone to see whether I could send some information directly to a nascent bit of what. And why? Because simply emailing the information and then using that as the basis for a bit of what seemed clumsy. It isn’t.

Well, it is, but it will at least get the job done.

At least, it will if I let myself let it.

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