articles

    The olive oil shortage may be just the beginning

    Olive oil’s return to being a luxury item heralds a new era of bland cooking Everyone I know has been shocked by the price increase of olive oil, which has more than doubled in the last two years. It doesn’t feel like long since I was picking up a litre of extra virgin olive oil from Aldi for under £3. It’s now almost £7. “Proper” brands are now more expensive than wine. I’ve more or less stopped buying it. Maybe I’ll get it as a treat sometimes.

    It’s a feeling we are not particular used to as a culture — a good going from abundant and commonplace to scarce and luxurious. There have been fluctuations in the price of fuel and energy over the years — but these are usually due to temporary political situations. We are used to goods generally getting more abundant, and for price rises to be relatively small, and often temporary.

    This feels different. It feels frustrating. Olive oil has been so available that yes, I do feel slightly entitled to it. That olive oil is healthy rather than a vice adds to the indignation. The feelings are not particularly rational.

    I’ve been reflecting on these feelings, and also the very real possibility that this change is permanent. There are several reasons for the shortage — extreme dryness in growing regions, and an outbreak of disease that has led to the destruction of entire plantations of ancient olive trees. With the world only continuing to get warmer and drier, we may not ever get affordable olive oil again. It’s a sobering thought.

    With the multiple overlapping ecological crises we face, this is unlikely to be the last time this happens. Food insecurity is forecast to increase. We may have to get used to a world where another everyday foods falls off the menu every few years. If the extreme weather we’ve been seeing hasn’t yet led to mass action on climate, perhaps the threat to our dietary diversity will.

    Farming animals is a threat to us all

    Rise of drug-resistant superbugs could make Covid pandemic look ‘minor’, expert warns

    Antibiotic misuse and overuse threatens to leave us in a post-antibiotic world. Antibiotics are not only essential for curing illnesses, but also to protect against wound infection — including surgical wounds. Routine, safe surgeries could become life-threatening.

    The burden for reducing antibiotic use currently falls overwhelmingly on medical and healthcare workers. Yet the majority of antibiotics used worldwide are used on farmed animals. They are used en masse to prevent (not cure) infection in unsanitary conditions, as well as to promote rapid growth.

    Most antibiotics used by humans and animals are excreted, ending up in fertiliser, in our rivers, or in our sewage. In other words, our food and water systems become breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance. Moreover, the primary mechanism for the spread of antimicrobial resistance is via horizontal gene transfer — the tranfer of genetic material between species, even distantly related ones. Even if antimicrobial resistance evolves first in pathogens affecting animals, those adaptations can be passed on to pathogens affecting humans.

    Animal farming is bad for animals, the planet, and poses a risk to the future of medicine. Cutting down the use of antibiotics in farming is likely to decrease animal welfare due to disease, and organic farming dramtically increases the land (and hence ecological) footprint of rearing animals. In the majority of the industrialised world, there’s no “good” way to do animal farming.

    Weekly Digest

    Trialing a new format.

    This week we have a bunch of lefty links.

    • The Forest and The Factory by Phil A. Neel and Nick Chavez. Long, occasionally whimsical essay on a question that is often overlooked in utopian post-capitalist imaginaries — how do things actually get produced? In particular — how are things produced at scale? Neel and Chavez identify as communists, but even if you don’t like that word there is much to be learned here for anyone interested in imaginaries like eco-socialism, degrowth, social ecology, solarpunk and so on. Link to Chavez’s website
    • Mother Trees and socialist forests: is the “wood-wide web” a fantasy? by Daniel Immerwahr. The idea that trees are altruistic and can share resources and information has gained a lot of traction recently, sometimes in eco/leftist discourse as part of a project to naturalise peace and cooperation. But I’ve always found it farfetched, and this article seems to agree.
    • We Live In An Age Of “Vulture Capitalism”. Interview with economics writer Grace Blakeley. Some interesting discussion about why “state” vs “market” is the wrong debate.

    Reading

    Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. Gripping Soviet-era sci-fi novel that the Stalker film and S.T.A.L.K.E.R games are based on.

    Listening

    The Airborne Toxic Event by the band of the same name. I’d not listened to this band in years. Brilliant album, with the standout track Sometime Around Midnight being one of the best sad songs of the 00s.

    Watching

    • Watched Into The Congo with Ben Fogle this week. Fogle visits Congo-Brazzaville, and spends time with many interesting peoples and people, including Mbenjele hunter-gatherers, the fashion-loving Sapeurs, and stars of the absolutely bananas Congolese wrestling scene. I have a dear friend originally from Congo (hi if you’re reading!), so it was nice to learn a little more about his country.
    • Watched Britain’s Got Talent for the first time in over a decade. Saturday night family entertainment is a thing now, I guess.

    Up to much else?

    • We’ve been laying plywood underfloor upstairs in our house ready to hopefully get some proper flooring soon.
    • Final parents' evening of the year was on Thursday. It went fine, despite me being a bit worried about it.
    • Made a bit of progress toward my next crossword for mycrossword.co.uk. I’ve not set one for months, and they take me so long to construct.

    A little knowledge can enrich so much

    Today my wife and I took our little one on a walk through the fields and woods near our house. Having only recently moved to this area and having lived mainly in cities as an adult, this is still quite a novelty. It was a lovely walk — our just-turned-two-year-old managed to go for over 90 minutes. I think he complained less than me.

    It was even more enhanced by the wildlife we saw. This included a field mouse, a muntjac, and several birds, including goldcrests and jays. A week ago I could not have identified a goldcrest, and until today I could not have identified a jay. But my wife has recently been reading Be A Birder by Hamza Yassin, a beginner’s birdwatching book. She’s since been telling me things about birds and my interest in and knowledge in them has increased. And so on this walk, I was amazed at how much even the most rudimentary knowledge of birds enhanced the experience. I now know the names and at most one fact about some birds (beyond stuff like pigeons and blackbirds), and it was so much more fun than just thinking “oh look, a bird”.

    Another time I have had this experience was after listening to the audiobook version of the Great Courses' How To Listen To And Understand Great Music (unsurprisingly a course that does perfectly fine in audio format). While the course touches on many key developments in western music, at its heart is the classical symphony, with particular focus on the sonata-allegro form, a musical structure that appears once or twice in virtually every classical symphony and concerto. Whatever comes to mind when you think “classical music”, from the Beethoven’s 5th or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to any of Haydn’s hundred-odd symphonies, it’s probably following a standard structure that includes the sonata-allegro form. Learning just this from this course has enhanced my enjoyment of pretty much every symphony. Plus, the lecturer is a hoot.

    I often tell my students when they ask something like “Why do I need to know the ratio of a circle’s circumference and diameter?” something like that “You see circles every single day of your life, do you not think you should know the most elementary thing about them?”. I see birds enough times that it’s worth knowing the first damn thing about them, too. Because the basics are, well, basic, you can learn a lot of them very quickly, the cognitive equivalent of “noob gains”. It’s delightful how little it takes to enrich your experience — just some curiosity and a well-made beginner’s guide.

    The Joy of Reading to a Child

    At one time in the past I was browsing Reddit and stumbled on some thread where Redditors were doing what they do best, which is complaining about the existence of children. In this instance, the particular grievance was that children require reading to, and children’s books are boring, especially when you’ve read them a hundred times already. The Gruffalo was given as an exemplar of a boring children’s book.

    Well, I’ve been reading to my child for months now and I’m sure I’m reaching the hundred mark with some of these books — possibly including The Gruffalo. I can safely say these Redditors were missing the point (say it ain’t so!).

    I’m sure you, dear visitor, are better-adjusted than the average Redditor and don’t require convincing that reading a child a bedtime story is actually quite a nice thing to do. But let’s celebrate the joys of this simple habit regardless.

    1. It’s quality time with your child. I work too much at the moment. After work, it’s a mad rush to get everyone fed and to bed (before resuming work, natch). On the average weekday, quality time with the little one can be in short supply. But embedding bedtime stories into our routine all but guarantees my son gets my undivided attention for at least 15 minutes — and this is the last thing he experiences before settling to sleep.

    2. It’s a ritual. As Ted Gioia recently reminded me, rituals are part of the antidote to our modern culture of overwork and hyperstimulation. The importance of ritual in the Good Life goes back to Confucius. Rituals are about creating “sacred” contexts in which the ordinary habits and roles of life are put aside, and attention is devoted to observance of the ritual. The repetitive nature of a ritual is part of the point.

      The bedtime story is a ritual. The everyday distractions — for me, digital devices; for my child, toys — are put away. We adopt the roles of reader and listener, cuddler and cuddled. My child knows instinctively that something special is happening when we sit down for bedtime stories. It is our developed grown-up brains that rationalise it into something else.

    3. It’s a performance . The most effective way to prevent reading the same story over and over to your child becoming boring and stale is to think of it as a performance. Tonight you won’t just be reading The Gruffalo to your child; you’ll be giving him or her the best reading of The Gruffalo they’ve ever had. My reading of The Gruffalo kicks ass, and no, I’m not bored of it. Play with intonation. Do silly voices. Play games with the words and illustrations. Whatever it takes to delight them.

    4. Your child will surprise you. Young children change so rapidly, yet in our busy and distracted world we often miss the little things that change day-to-day. But in the quiet of the evening, during the ritual of the bedtime story, we have an opportunity to witness these little changes. If you pay attention to what they pay attention to, the illustrations they point out, the connections they make, your child can surprise you over and over again. And the more you read to them, the faster they learn. You’ll get back what you put in, if you allow your child to show you.

    5. You’ll inspire them to love books. If you make books loveable, by turning reading into a special ritual with a performance that delights them, then your child will love them. Despite all his cool toys and light up and make noises, my boy is captivated by books, and he can’t even read them yet. He picks up books of his own accord and repeats the words he can remember from each page, and searches for his favourite things in the illustrations. With any luck, this is the first step to a lifelong love of reading.

    The Practicing Stoic 📚

    Finished reading: The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth 📚

    If I were in the business of judging books by their covers, this one would be a solid 10/10.

    The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth is the best secondary introduction to the wisdom of the Roman Stoics I have yet seen, owing to the book’s unique structure. Each chapter takes on a recurring theme of Stoic wisdom, and presents a wealth of quotations from the Stoics1 (and adjacent thinkers, such as Cicero) with commentary from the author. Unlike many other secondary popular works on Stoicism, this format allows the Stoics to speak in their own words. The result is a book that is scholarly but not academic, and accessible without being a dumbed-down self-help popularisation.

    Farnsworth openly admits he is not trying to give a full, rigorous account of Stoicism as philosophy per se. Rather, his goal is to provide a readable and useful collection of what the Stoics said on a range of topics such as death, desire, and adversity, while offering some of his own thoughts in each chapter on how one might learn from these teachings today. It’s clear that this is a personal interpretation of these ancient thinkers that is faithful and reverent without being dogmatic. After all, the Stoics each had their own spin on the philosophy, and so can we.

    This is most evident in the final chapter, in which Farnsworth responds to the common criticisms of the Stoics. On the perceived heartlessness of the Stoics, Farnsworth offers an idiosyncratic but quite instructive analogy as to the kind of emotional character the student is Stoicism is aiming toward — essentially, that of the kindly old person. Their hotheadedness, greed, and anxieties have been softened through experience, allowing a gentle compassion to shine through without interference from emotional reactivity. In Farnsworth’s view, Stoic wisdom and practice accelerate the student toward something like this ideal.

    I would recommand this book to anyone interested in Stoicism. There’s no substitute for the primary texts, but if you’ve read Marcus’s Meditations and Epictetus’s Handbook, this book is a wonderful thematic tour of the rest of the Stoic canon.


    1. By “the Stoics”, I mean the three Roman Stoic writers — Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — whose works have survived. Virtually nothing has survived from the earlier Greek school. ↩︎

    Finished reading: The Shortest History of Israel and Palestine 📚

    Finished reading: The Shortest History of Israel and Palestine by Michael Scott-Baumann 📚

    After the events of October 7th, I decided it was time to fix my ignorance of the basic history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine by picking up the Shortest History of Israel and Palestine. It is not the first time I’ve tried to understand this situation, but I bounced off other, denser books I tried. The Shortest History is clear and accessible. It focuses on key events and outcomes, not on details like blow-by-blow accounts of battles.

    Here is how it has left me feeling.

    I do not see how any impartial judge could look at the foundation of Israel and not regard it as a crime. The UN Partition Plan of 1947 was a crime, and the ensuing 1947 and 1948 conflicts that established Israel’s statehood was a catastrophic crime that created 700,000 Arab refugees. Virtually all Gazans are descendents of those refugees.

    Since the foundation of Israel, the Palestinian Arabs have been a people without rights. Since 1967, they have been a people without rights living under the occupation of a hostile colonial power, in Gaza and the West Bank. That power has continued to illegally appropriate land, and harass and humiliate the Palestinian population ever since.

    These are the base facts of the situation. There have been atrocities on both sides. Palestinian resistance has often been violent. Israel’s land grabs and responses to violence have also been violent (and much more powerfully so). But these atrocities have not altered the base facts: a people without rights living under the occupation of a hostile colonial power.

    Israel’s human rights abuses are aided and abetted by the United States and its allies, including the UK. US and British politicians have given their full support for Israel’s campaign since October 7th, despite clear evidence of crimes on a massive scale. Biden and some others may have begun to voice euphemistic misgivings about the mass slaughter currently occurring in Gaza. But this is much too little, too late. The scale and brutality of Israel’s response was predicted by many of us from the start; the willingness of our politicians to turn a blind eye for this long lays bare a damning lack of concern for Arab lives, not to mention international law and human rights.

    And now we must wait in horror as Israel begins it’s assault on Rafah, and wonder if any Western leader will finally take action.

    I do not just wish for peace, I wish for justice. The return of land seized since 1967, and reparations for all the infrastructure and homes destroyed, and lives lost, during this brutal 45-year occupation.

    The only hope for any of this is massive international pressure, including material pressure through sanctions, and particularly from the US and its allies. I do not hold my breath.

    2023 in review

    A brief overview of my year

    Main events

    • My little boy turned 1 year old, so I had my first experience of doing a child’s birthday party.
    • Had holidays in Llandudno and Christchurch, Dorset.
    • Became an uncle for the first time. The family is growing, and everyone is full of joy.
    • Finally bought a new house after months of living with my parents for logistical reasons.
    • Began learning web development via the Odin Project.
    • Made a good friend at work, and reconnected with some old friends.
    • Participated in the teacher strikes this year.
    • Published several cryptic crosswords on mycrossword.co.uk. My crossword setting and solving improved a lot over the year. I ran a crossword club at school.
    • Survived an OFSTED inspection (outcome: “Good”)
    • Started this blog 🎉.

    Patterns and themes

    • My progress in learning web dev slowed once the new school year started — many factors involved here, including workload, parenthood, living situation
    • Started lifting weights in August. Things started to fall off a bit in December due to a spike in workload (many end-of-term exams to mark). However, I’m still keen to go; I’ll pick the habit back up next week
    • Stress levels have been very high throughout the year, primarily due to work, but of course also to do with staying with parents, moving house, and so on.
    • Latter part of the year have had a big focus on family and marriage. Our living situation, together with my workload and stress levels, have been challenging for us all.
    • Got ill quite a bit in the first half of the year, but haven’t had a sick day since school started in September.

    Favourites

    Didn’t have time for much culture this year, but the best book I read was Neuromancer.

    Looking ahead

    • Keep making progress in learning web development
    • Keep going to the gym
    • Keep focusing on the family

    Happy new year 🥳