A cows plus strategy, and clustering

Some thoughts prompted by ‘The New Geography of Jobs‘, by Enrico Moretti

This book is a great description of the economic geography of the modern United States and an explanation of how it got that way. It is also a primer for policy-makers interested in how to ensure more good “innovation sector” jobs. Mr Moretti talks about how the “brain hubs”, like San Francisco, Seattle or Boston, came about, and what to do if you find yourself (like New Zealand and most United States cities), wanting to transform your local economy over time while avoiding the cul-de-sacs and mistakes that others have fallen into along the way.


Mr Moretti divides cities into places with good jobs, those without, and the places that could go either way. “Good” jobs are involved in the innovation sector, which is loosely defined as high-tech plus any other occupation that makes intensive use of human capital and ingenuity. Places without good jobs are mostly declining or declined manufacturing centres in the Rust Belt where the book starts.

Wider economic benefits from innovation sector jobs are very big. Mr Moretti reports that for every innovation sector job, e.g., a new software engineer at the Googleplex, there are an additional five jobs created, two professional jobs (e.g., doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses) and three non-professional jobs (e.g., waiters, carpenters, taxi drivers, shop workers). Most sectors in the economy have these multiplier effects but those in the innovation sector are particularly big. So while employment in the innovation sector will never account for the majority of jobs (at the moment it accounts for around 10%), it has a disproportionate and positive impact on the economy overall. Although Boeing employs twice as many people in Seattle as Microsoft, it ultimately creates fewer local jobs.

There is not just a jobs effect but also a big income effect. Everybody earns more in a brain hub than s/he does doing the same job in a Rust Belt city. Your neighbour’s skill level affects how much you earn, regardless of your own skill level. This result is not necessarily intuitive, but Mr Moretti (on page 99) says there are three reasons for it. First, skilled and unskilled workers complement each other: an increase in the former raises the productivity of the latter. Second, a better educated labour force encourages the deployment of new and better technologies, raising productivity. And third, the economic magic of human capital externalities, i.e., when people interact they learn from each other, and those who interact with better educated peers ultimately become more productive and creative.

The result holds for employees of all skill levels. So a college graduate in Boston, where 47% of residents have a college degree earns $20k a year more on average than a college graduate in Yuma Arizona, where 11% of residents have a college degree. But the biggest impact is for the least skilled. A high-school graduate in Boston earns 34k more a year than a high-school graduate in Yuma. Part of this difference, says Mr Moretti, is compensating for the higher cost of living in Boston. But using a nifty longitudinal dataset that follows the same individuals over time, he finds that the same individual can make a very different salary depending on how many skilled workers s/he has around.

Learning from history

The early part of the book charts the decline of American manufacturing jobs and the rise of jobs in innovation economy. It explains the hollowing out of the American labour market, as new technologies favour high-skilled workers, reduce the need for many occupations that call for medium-level skills, and have little effect on occupations at the low end of the skill spectrum: jobs that involve non-routine tasks have not been particularly hurt by computers.

Since every city, of course, wants to be a brain hub, the book also explains how brain hubs developed, by way of sketches of the development of Seattle, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. This part is particularly interesting because it goes back far enough in time to show what Seattle was like in 1979 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved their then fledging business there. They did this not for professional reasons but for personal ones. Indeed Seattle seemed like a terrible place at the time: The Economist had recently labelled it the “city of despair”. And especially compared with Abuquerque, New Mexico where Microsoft was founded and which already had the beginnings of what might have become a tech hub. Nevertheless, they moved to Seattle and the rest, together with the decisions of many others to set up shop there over time, is history. Jeff Bezos started his new firm, Amazon, in Seattle in 1994 because by then Seattle had the engineers, programmers and venture capitalists that he needed to get started.

The new picture of economic geography

I saw this picture recently on Twitter (created by Reddit user atrubetskoy). The blue areas are responsible for 50% of US GDP. So are the orange areas. Twenty three successful cities.

Mr Moretti talks about why this clustering happens, and why is it that new software firms, which might be just two guys in their garage, decide to locate in San Francisco or Silicon Valley or Seattle despite the fact that these are amongst the most expensive places to live in the United States. The contrast with industrial economy firms is stark: they go where resources plus transport are cheapest, so paper mills are near forests, milk factories are near farms, and steel mills are near coal mines. The lobster industry is in Maine, because that is where the lobsters live, and the oil industry is in Texas, because that is where the oil is.

There are three factors that create clusters First, firms go where they think they will find good employees, which happens to be where all the other employers are. Second, they also want to find good suppliers, and customers for their products,hence the ecosystem. The venture capitalists of Silicon Valley are far more helpful to a growing firm looking for funding than the venture capitalists of other places with less developed ecosystems. And third, it turns out that innovation, collaboration and the creation of new ideas are highly influenced by proximity. Even small physical distances are enough to deter collaboration and information sharing. This is seen from networks of patent citations: inventors are significantly more likely to cite other inventors living nearby than inventors living far away. Similarly, I recall a study from Google some years back of information flows in the workplace that said that what you know is determined largely by where you sit (sorry I can’t find the reference just now). Mr Moretti says (p141), “being around smart people tends to make us smarter, more creative and ultimately more productive”. These cluster effects are intensifying because they are self-reinforcing, and because, once a cluster is established, the costs of moving it are overwhelming.

The policy of inevitability

The question for policy-makers, especially local economic development agencies, is therefore how to turn their city into a brain hub.

Mr Moretti explores a few options. Basically it is hard. The best bet is to have already got lucky and have had some innovation sector businesses set up shop. If that has not happened, then you could look at supply side ideas or at demand-side ideas to get things started (this is from the perspective of the labour market, so “supply side” means increases the number of workers, and “demand side” means increasing the supply of jobs).

On the supply side, the basic strategy is to attract highly skilled, young, creative types, and then expect that high-tech employers will follow, hoping to take advantage of the ready local labour supply. Mr Moretti is down on this approach, arguing that Berlin is the best example of this strategy but that Berlin continues to have amongst Germany’s worst unemployment problem and weak economic growth. That said, Berlin is widely considered to be one of the most interesting and vibrant places in Europe at present. Conclusion: there may still upsides for residents in adopting the supply side strategy, but it is far from a slam dunk case from an economic point of view.

In some industries, and Mr Moretti says biotechnology might be one, attracting stars is also important to encourage both other workers and to encourage employers. Qatar does this. So does Singapore. And probably other places with which I am even less familiar. New Zealand’s efforts to attract over-achievers from other countries to come and live here might also be an example, so when James Cameron or Julian Robertson come live here, they can help attract other people and establish an ecosystem. Mr Moretti talks about the cautionary tale of the University of Washington, whose efforts to build a classy economics department foundered when resources ran scarce before the star attraction programme was completed.

The demand side idea is basically about attracting high-tech employers to come set up shop. The main tool is subsidies or tax breaks as part of so-called “place-based policies”. Mr Moretti says around $60 billion a year is spent on them in the United States. The idea is to provide subsidies for the first firms to come along, and then stop the subsidies after enough firms have arrived that economic development is self-sustaining: the “big push” strategy aims to break the impasse that keeps high-tech firms from locating outside of existing high-tech areas.

Mr Moretti says the push needs to be really big, decisive and sustained, and it has to target the right people. And the big problem is this last point: local government needs to be in the business of picking some winners.

The track record of these types of policies is mixed, to put it nicely. Many hubs have nothing to do with government action: Silicon Valley, the biotech cluster in San Diego, and the movie cluster in Hollywood are examples. Even in smaller places, Portland Oregon being one that I am familiar with and that seems actively to encourage the inward migration of young, skilled people, the heart of the high-tech hub is a private employer: Intel’s semi-conductor facility in 1976 was the start of things there. More locally, it is not obvious that government had much to do with Weta, nor with Xero, both of which have substantial local ecosystems around them.

That said, internationally Israel and Ireland would be held out as examples of success, the former more so than the latter these days, and even there the intention of government spending was not to create a local tech sector but instead to develop innovative defense technologies. Taiwan is another relevant example, transforming from a rural economy to an advanced one courtesy of government-sponsored research in the 1960s and 70s. Policy-makers bet on several failed technologies, but also on semi-conductors, which turned out extremely well. The history of efforts by governments is not studded with success, however. Mr Moretti reviews the experience of Fremont California, where Solyndra, a major employer, maker of solar panels, and recipient of significant federal government support, went broke in 2011. It seems that the industry of making solar panels does not exhibit strong forces of agglomeration, although it is hard to find this sort of thing out without trying.

Smaller scale efforts to attract employers, e.g., Twitter’s recent move to central San Francisco, are very common and, in some cases, seem to pay off for the communities involved, i.e., the benefits from spillovers can be bigger than the cost in tax foregone. That does not make the residents happy necessarily, since they appear to be giving city tax breaks to enormous profitable companies.

A programme that successfully encourages development, that does not try to pick winners too directly, that targets incentives carefully, and that incentivises private investment is more likely to be a winner, says Mr Moretti.

So what to do

Sadly Mr Moretti does not offer too much encouragement. There are no straightforward answers it seems, and you will only know you have succeeded once you have succeeded. His policy agenda is fairly broad, mentioning vouchers to encourage people to move to areas where they are more likely to find a job, a boost to RnD, a major improvement in the quality and quantity of education especially in technical subjects, and a loosening of immigration policy, since immigrants seem to be a lot more inventive than locals in the United States.

What all this means for New Zealand, a place that is not a brain hub in many industries and is far from the world, is not especially clear. The picture is even less clear for regions within New Zealand, which are still further from brain hub status by comparison with the major centres of New Zealand.

But let’s say New Zealand wants to be a brain hub, i.e., we want to adopt some policies that will attract or create high-tech companies that will hire high-tech workers, and this will generate jobs and boost everyone’s income. Assuming we have not got lucky, i.e., we are not a brain hub already, and we have good education, immigration and RnD policies already, some possibilities include the following:

* Understand the situation, i.e., figure out what New Zealand is good at and not good at, what is useful and can be built upon and what is difficult and will need to be worked around. Thinking about how the whole hangs together (“the city of four million people” to quote Shaun Hendy) and how we can compete with much larger Australian cities that attract more people is useful.
* Back some local employers or employment initiatives with public money, and over time expand the ones that seem to be working (i.e., the example of Taiwan, but not of Solyndra). Bear in mind that tech venture capital firms expect only one of every ten investments to succeed, a few to muddle on, and the rest to sink without trace. Politically you are going to have to be resilient to failures with public money. Not easy.
* Connect with educated locals and encourage them not to leave. The experience of Otorohanga might be inspirational as well as educational at the level of the nation.
* Connect with your diaspora, and try to encourage them either to come back with their businesses and networks, or to take an active role in supporting local initiatives from wherever they are in the world.
* At a national level, I think it would really helpful if New Zealanders went to a more diverse set of places (and not just focusing on the UK and Australia). We are not sufficiently well connected to China and the coasts of the USA.
* Make some localised improvements to amenities. Perhaps just giving talented people a place to run into each other could be a useful step forward. ATEED is building an innovation hub to house high-tech firms: a cluster of them is clearly already developing on Viaduct Harbour Avenue, with Vodafone, HP, Microsoft and others already in residence, just to name the brands you can see on the door. Fonterra is moving in next door.

You could also get some useful ideas on talented people and how to attract, retain, develop and connect them from the ever-interesting McGuinness Institute, and their project TalentNZ.

Do not expect speedy miracles. Sustainable economic development takes a long time. You can see New Zealand’s exports and imports broken down by type below, courtesy of the MIT observatory of economic complexity. First is 1990. Second is 2010. See how many colours have changed?

NZ Exports 1990


NZ Exports 2010



Distant pangs

A few thoughts on Open Lands, by Mark Taplin

In 1992 the United States and Russia agreed to let their citizens travel without restrictions within each others’ countries, quite a development given that the Soviet Union only ceased to exist in December 1991 and there was still plenty of Cold War hangover on both sides.


Mr Taplin, a cultural attache at the US embassy in Moscow in the 1980s, took the opportunity to go to some places that were previously forbidden and to write about what he found. Part travelogue, part economic study of a country in crisis, and part ethnographic investigation of a diversity of ex-Soviet characters, this book is the result.

It is great on people. The impoverished vulcanologist of Kamchatka and his fish-soup making wife, the tin-pot secessionists of Kabardino-Balkaria, the over-organising tour guide in Tuva, all could be characters from the modern equivalent of a 19th century Russian novel. Perhaps an undiscovered Gogol, with that blend of stoicism and fatalism in the face of the plainly unacceptable or surreal that is both Russia’s iconic national personality trait and the demand that it makes of all visitors.

It is also a great blend of history and modernity. Mr Taplin takes the opportunity to review the history of places that he visits, and illustrate then with personal stories of the people across whom he comes. And he combines this with stories from his own road as he tries to make sense of what the history means for the present day.

Thinking big

It is also great on dreaming. To his credit, and perhaps demonstrating the book’s appeal to those who like to venture from the trail, Mr Taplin makes attempts to follow long forgotten paths in an effort to bring meaning to what could otherwise be seen as a depressing tour of some low priority provincial Russian regions.

Most entertainingly, but also ludicrously, he hatches in Moscow (seven time zones away) a plan to follow the trail blazed by George Kennan, the explorer not the diplomat, who visited Kamchatka in 1865 and (p 245):

ascended the Abacha River in a whaleboat; climbed over the mountain range behind the capital on horseback; rafted down the Kamchatka River to Klyuchi, a village at the foot of Kamchatka’s highest volcanoes; trudged over the high ridges of the Middle Range; struggled up the trackless west coast of the peninsula  and then wintered among the nomadic Koryaks, who carried Kennan and his companions across the frozen tundra in dogsleds, sheltering them in sooty teepees.

If this all seems a bit dramatic in the light of modern cruise shipping to Kamchatka, these sorts of impossible itineraries do rather seem to have been de rigueur for real explorers back in the day. I recently read Turkestan Solo, in which Ella Maillart, a Geneva-born hardcore explorer, describes amongst other things her crossing of the Kyzylkum Desert in western Uzbekistan by camel in winter on an expedition she put together on the hop and on a shoestring in the 1930s. They bred them tough back then, apparently.

The net result for Mr Taplin is less glamourous. He ends up on a horrifying truck ride with a coterie of serving military folks with a sideline in smuggling, some charmless days in the truly charmless Klyuchi including being, in a marvelous Sovietic twist, a near neighbour to Stalin’s granddaughter, and an effective exile back to Moscow courtesy of local officials for whom the end of the Cold War still seems to be news. For extra colour we have the mysterious figure of Leonid, whose overweening blandishments and toady assistance mark him out immediately to readers of spy novels as a sympathiser with the authorities and someone definitely not to be trusted.


There are many possible morals to the story. The boringness of the previously forbidden places particularly struck me, hardening my prejudices against the abuse that eventually emerges from powerful systems that are not transparent or open to external challenge. Why they would bother to make these places closed to foreigners, or for that matter to Russians, is a question best left to the historians. I recall a story of Eric Newby’s about being forbidden for security reasons to take photos of bridges on his Big Red Train
Ride, despite the fact that all details including photographs of the bridges were published in a book that was freely available in the West and that he even carried with him. I remember holding my camera with particular caution around unimportant railyards on the train, suggesting that this secretiveness was still part of the atmosphere in the early 2000s.

Even when Mr Taplin does go somewhere that seems intrinsically interesting, dreariness is his constant companion. The book has a set of reviewers with whom I make particularly poor company. No less an authority than the Economist describes the book as identifying in particular the “soul destroying ugliness” that communism foisted on its subdued populace. Every traveller to Russia will recall some incident like that that befell Mr Taplin in the cafes of Vladivostok, and all budding Kremlinologists will recognise the political machinations of that far-eastern town as typical of the madness that descends when “democracy” is grafted on to autocracy and has not yet had time to grow firm roots.

Despite the bleakness of the future in prospect for Russia’s farflung provinces, there is
something positive in this account also. Laughing and crying are never far apart in Russia, and it seems as if Mr Taplin is partly trying to find out why it is that he is sufficiently interested to even bother to visit these outposts of fading empire.

Perhaps he is captured by the same romantic travelling spirit that defines all problems as challenges, all grotty bedding-down places as experiences, all inedible chow as an opportunity to discover a new cuisine, and all uncomfortable journeys as chances to see the world a new way. It is the dream that some cleaner, more magical dream is just around the next bend, that a visitor can peel back the facade of crumbling infrastructure and ruined lives and reveal the delight and cleanliness of an upcoming civilisation rampant. It is probably also a reminder of how pampered one quickly becomes in the feedback-form-filling west.

Which is just as well. Because without this superimposed meaning, the unremitting poverty, decay and despair could make it rather hard to cope with a journey like this one: the underlying thought of all travellers being “at least I don’t have to stay”.

Last line

Overall Open Lands is an excellent addition to my library, such as it is, an interesting record of how it was in the mid 1990s as the support systems that sustained economic life in previously-important parts of Russia broke down, and excellent vanity travelling for places that I may not reach for some years. So thanks to the Wellington man who commented on a previous post pointing me in its direction.

In particular, I have always been interested in the border between Russia and Mongolia in Tuva, a line on the map where two forgotten places meet. It was reported as being impassable in the early 1990s when I was near there (although there was no risk that I would actually go in any case), but now I have heard that some folks on the Mongol Rally pass through, which is clearly the sign that mass tourism is just around the corner.

So just what is the matter, America

A kind of book review of “What’s the matter with Kansas”, by Thomas Frank

This is a really interesting book of American political analysis. Basically it explores an apparent paradox – poor people, especially in rural, mid-Western America, vote for the Republican party. The book tries to explain why this is so even when it is clear, in Mr Frank’s hypothesis, that the Republicans’ economic policies contribute to the impoverishment of those who vote for them.

His basic point is that conservatives use social hot-button issues (think abortion, gun control, gay marriage) and more generally a supposed split between rural and urban values to motivate followers to vote Republican, and as part of that platform poor voters also end up with an economic policy that works against their interests, undermining their rural lifestyle, destroying their industry and towns, and concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

As one example of this phenomenon, Mr Frank considers recent Kansan economic history and in particular looks at the rise of big agriculture and resultant demise of small towns. The marvel is that the democratic response to these economic declines is for Kansans to vote even more conservatives whose policies contribute to the decline of the small towns in the first place.

Les bleus et les rouges

The book is partly a response to the blue state/red state division that was coined in the 2000 presidential election. Crudely this is the idea that America is divided into Red states in the middle of the nation that are reliably Republican and where the good people live simply, but American made, and respect decent traditional values, and those Blue states on the coasts that vote Democratic and where everything is fancy, outre and imported, including the moral code.

Mr Frank points out that, on this theory, it is authenticity rather than anything about actual behaviour that divides the salt of the earth pickup-driving residents of the Red states from the effete, Volvo-driving residents of the Blue. Of course it is purely a political division – in practice, plenty of Red Staters prefer to sip on that fake fancy coffee than to slurp up cups of drip of death at the local diner for 50 cents a pop. But a parade of conservative Republican leaders create a social contrast between Red and Blue to make common cause with the average citizens of the Red states, infuriate them with talk of how the effete residence of Blue staters are responsible for all social problems, and through this secure both their outrage about social issues and their support for right-wing economic policies that do not advance those voters’ economic interests.

The net result is a slightly bizarre political position that talks a great deal about class, but denies that economics has anything to do with it, and results in the truly weird spectacle of the working poor fighting against healthcare reform that would give them insurance, or supporting tax cuts for millionaires.

Along the way, Mr Frank reviews the political history of Kansas, his state of birth, and catalogues the remarkable transformation of Kansas from home to firebrand radical progressive political activists at the turn of the last century, to a by-word for backwardness and parochial arch-conservatism at the turn of the this (Kansas School Board vs The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster being a marvellous recent example).

En route

He also reviews the ongoing conflict in the Republican party between conservatives and old-school liberals (these days sufficiently unfashionable to be a threatened species). And he talks in detail about the efforts of Republicans to paint themselves as victims of a liberal media conspiracy that works always against the common man. Those liberal elites and nasty mainstream media making the television ever ruder and society more permissive against the wishes of the majority.

In some fascinating chapters he talks to people who are conservative Republicans and tries to understand and document their stories. I found it uniquely interesting and bizarre that they think that economic institutions that would normally be on their side (e.g., minimum wages, unions, regulation of healthcare) are instead part of the problem. These people seem to want to create a low-wage, highly-competitive, race to the bottom labour market despite the obvious fact that this could undermine their own living conditions and those of their community radically. Or they are so motivated by social issues, especially abortion or religious questions, that they vote only on that basis, and they end up supporting the most conservative economic policies because only those leaders are sufficiently conservative on social policy.

I was particularly struck by the description of victimhood of the Republican party grassroots – the “backlashers” in the quote below, and the conscious pretence that they are not part of the ruling power even when their man is in the White House (the book was published in 2004):

While liberals use their control of the airwaves, newspapers, and schools to persecute average Americans – to ridicule the pious, flatter the shiftless, and indoctrinate the kids with all sorts of permissive nonsense – the Republicans are the party of the disrespected, the downtrodden, the forgotten. They are always the underdog, always in rebellion against a haughty establishment, always rising up from below.

Conservatism … can never be powerful or successful, and backlashers revel in fantasies of their own marginality and persecution.

And they combine all this with statements about their own supposed subversiveness through their willingness to stand up for the unpopular or unfashionable ideas, and to provide their lone voice support for traditional values.

Deux choses encore

Aside from being genuinely interesting social commentary about a part of society that I seldom encounter and know nearly nothing about, two things struck me.

First is the enduring relevance of this debate today for what sort of country the United States wants to be.

Mr Obama is famous partly for a speech he gave in 2004 to the Democratic National Convention that talked party about post-partisanship and the end of red state/blue state rhetoric. But the underlying debate about inequality and the limits of democracy continues to this day.

For instance, I note in today’s New York Times the continuing kerfuffle over covertly recorded comments by Mr Romney that the 47% of the nation who do not pay federal income tax are moochers who view themselves as entitled to support from everyone else. Interesting, there is a bunch of interesting data from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center that shows how the 47% of non-payers breaks down by income, and by state – lots of them are in Red states, surprise surprise).

The second thing that struck me was the enduring crapness of this narrative. It is so unconstructive and so unhelpful to draw such stark lines on the political map, leaving aside the basic fact that it isn’t even true geographically – you can see from the Wikipedia map of recent election results, that it is more complicated than just inland versus coast.

In this connection, the newspaper also records the rather damning point, so far as Mr Romney is concerned, that the reason the 47% proportion is so high is because of tax credit programmes that have been a darling of the Republican party since before Regan and that have been expanded substantially in recent years in efforts to make work pay better than welfare.

Fortunately, it may be that the peddlers of these types of rubbish messages are getting their comeuppance. I like to believe, with no evidence at all, that American voters eventually got tired of voting in people who didn’t ever make any progress on the social issues they used to attract votes and have now moved on to more radical Tea Party candidates who are actually trying to follow through on the political agenda they were elected for, no matter how batty. The result is a bunch of elected officials who vote extremely socially conversatively, and also generally want to dismantle government in fundamental ways. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out in the course of the next few years. Kansas, so they say, is now almost entirely in the hands of the more conservative factions of the Republican party.

Anyway, over to you. If you want more, there is a movie. And if you think ye olde Red State/Blue State debate is a bit out of date now, fear not. I see Mr Frank has penned another book on how the conservative right have fared since 2008.

Around the Russian world

A sort of book review of The Trans-Siberian Railway, a Traveller’s Anthology, edited by Deborah Manley

This book is a delight. Published in 1988, it is a collection of edited excerpts from accounts of the great train journey across Russia, drawn together into a sampler. Many of the stories are old (some from before the train opened in 1903 when it took months to get across the world’s largest country, and many in ten years after its opening), many newish (mostly around the time of the Second World War), and a few more recent accounts,
especially from the 70s.

The book gathers together the material thematically first (the idea for the train and the dream, the train itself, preparations required, its role in war, some of the people involved), and then works broadly chronologically, with comments collated by region as we follow the train from Moscow in the West to Vladivostok in the East, plus a little at the end on the East to West trip and the time in China.

The book includes many excerpts from books that are hard to find or obsolete, including that stalwart of all 20th century European travellers, the Baedeker, – a close-typed swarm of advice and information of variable reliability about the train, the country, the people and the amenities. And it is no stranger to direct, negative reviews. The hotels of Siberia are “almost invariably dear and indifferent”, says the edition of 1914. “A disturbing feature is the inevitable concern of ‘sing-song’ in the dining room, which usually lasts far into the

A touch of local knowledge

Which causes me to digress for a moment to talk about guidebooks.

The question of the acceptability of guidebooks has been around as long as they have been in print, I suspect. As EM Forster has Mr Emerson say in Room with a View (well, at least in the movie):

We residents [of Florence] sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little. Handed about like parcels from Venice to Florence to Rome, unconscious of anything outside Baedeker, anxious to get done and go on elsewhere. I abhor Baedeker. I’d fling every copy in the Arno. Towns, rivers, palaces, all mixed up in an inextricable whirl.

The world has come rather far from Baedeker with modern guide books. Endless coverage of even trivial destinations, clear layout, quality photographs, regular updating, internet add-ons, and, most important, their positive tone. In the Lonely Planet world, even the most squalid hellhole has a charming cafe, a rustic hotel, or an ancient ritual of interest to the visitor, written up by a likely-impecunious backpacker after his/her half day in the city en route to more attractive parts.

I recall a description from the Lonely Planet for Russia of Nogliki, a town in the middle of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, describing it in sufficiently fond terms as to suggest it worthy of a pause if one was passing through (a rather unlikely journey, to be fair, since the delights of Northern Sakhalin were not notable), and boasting of it playing host to the world’s slowest railway.

This was, of course, an earlier edition. The editors have now realised the error of their ways in painting up the rustic, railway charms of Nogliki. And just as well, since I can report from personal experience that Nogliki is (or at least was, at the time that description was current) in fact a charmless locale with nothing to detain the visitor at all, except the public transport timetable that was created by a malignant gnome to ensure all visitors are forced to hang around the dead-end train station far longer than any sane free-thinker ever would. The world’s slowest railway had slowed sufficiently further that its trains could no longer be perceived to be moving at all.

Which is all by way of saying that something has been lost along the way, I think, in the move from Baedeker to Lonely Planet, in the change from the excitement and uncertainty of not knowing whether the guidebook is reliable to a powerful reliance on “the lonely” as the Bible of travel information. Oh how often have I met travellers who cursed the very name of Lonely Planet for the fact that a hotel it mentioned was closed, noisy or more expensive than promised.

The idea that a mere book could remove the uncertainty of travelling seems unusually naive and even arrogant, as if all the delights and horrors of any place could be parcelled up, summarised and contained within a few thousand words and a map or two, and that the whole would condescend to remain the same until next time the travel book updater happened to pass through.

Of course, this is not what modern travel guides say, introduced, as they are, with warnings about the fundamental unrealiability of the information contained therein. Reliable enough to be useful, but not so reliable that it could be our fault if something goes wrong. Besides which, things being different from the description on the tin is precisely the point of travelling.

But it does seem to me the underlying philosphy of modern travel guides tends to be empowering and positive. Every country has some charm and delight, and travelling is something sensible, informed, worldly types – normal people like you – do every day.

The underlying philosophy of Baedeker seems rather different. You get the impression the editors consider themselves doing an unpleasant public service. Travel is a nasty, dirty business but, if you persist against our reasoning, you had best be prepared, and so we offer you the following information, including direct advice on how to maintain your personal security. Travellers must always be on guard against thieves, and avoid carrying large sums of money.

It is desirable to carry a revolver in Manchuria and in trips away from the railway.

You can also see this trend in the accounts in the book. Those travelling at the start of the railway are unusually committed – travelling for work, or exploring, or both. As we get later on in to the century, leisure travellers emerge and travel writers whose market is the adventurous but not foolhardy. By the time you have Bob Geldof on a package tour on the train (his account is from 1978), you know that it is basically mainstream.

End of digression about guide-books.

The power of the brand

There is much fabulous material in here showing the development and change of attitudes towards Russia including this gem, from John Bell’s “Travels from St Petersburg in Russia to Diverse Parts of Asia” near the turn of the century (when optimism about Russia’s potential seems to have reached its apex amongst Western industrialists).

For my part, I think that, had a person his liberty and a few friends, there are few places were he could spend his life more agreeably than in some parts of Siberia.

The global brand of the trans-Siberian is also obvious from even very early accounts. As Ms Manley has it:

Perhaps no other journey on earth has captured people’s imagination as powerfully as … the Trans-Siberian

Authors consistently report that the reaction of their friends on hearing that they were taking this train trip was envy and excitement. This was 100 years ago, but I can report a similar reaction in modern times from my own train travels. There is something powerful about this train that makes it more appealing and attractive without any significant effort by its owners at advertising, except perhaps a few accounts of its astounding comforts at the time when it first began. Perhaps it is the appeal of exotic Russia herself: a long train ride across Canada is exactly that – a long train ride. A long train ride across Russia is something more mysterious, interesting, risky. You could get lost in all those trees. The limits of authority and civilisation seem to ebb away far more quickly in Sibera than they do in Alberta or Sasketchewan.

The thrill of the train ride also demonstrates to me that often the meaning attached to experiences can be divorced from the experience itself, i.e., the story we tell ourselves about an experience is what matters, and that story is not necessarily correlated with the facts. From my experience, it would be quite possible to write up the trans-Siberian as a very long ride on a non-too-comfy seat, the endless days punctuated with short
visits to dreary towns filled with people who look like they haven’t moved far from the days of the serfs. But in practice, everyone I ever met on the trans-Siberian (and most of the authors in this book) treated the train ride like an adventure, and every surly carriage attendant, depressing town, or unexplained halt in the wilderness was just another stitch of excitement in the cloak of mystery and unpredictability in which they wrapped their travels on the train, or in Russia in general.

I recently read Tiziano Terzani’s brilliant “A Fortune Teller Told Me” (you can read my sort-of book review here). He too was taken by the dream of the train, and influenced by early accounts of its magnificence:

To me, the term ‘Trans-Siberian’ has always suggested something demode and romantic.

But when he finds the reality rather different, he ascribes the variance to grubby economic development, rather than sullying the dream of the train.

Such is the strange destiny of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Built as a line of defence against China … it has now
become the supply line which enables the poor Russians … to dress in trashy Chinese clothes. Instead of the
duchesses and spies and generals and adventurers of half Europe, today the Trans-Siberian carries the
descendants of Genghis Khan along the path of ancient Mongolian conquests. But they too have come down
in the world, travelling not as conquerors but as peddlers.

As Ms Manley’s book demonstrates, the global brand has attracted many famous people to take the trip and record their thoughts for posterity. It is a shame that there is not more in the book from Russians who have built, maintained or travelled on this railroad. But Ms Manley’s book does include contributions from a large number of Western luminaries including Walter Duranty (a famous New York Times journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize), Peter Fleming (whose “News from Tatary” remains a travel adventure classic), George Kennan (explorer and war correspondent), Fitzroy Maclean (all-round over-achiever – British), Laurens van der Post (ditto – South African), Eric Newby (genius British travel writer) and Paul Theroux (ditto – American).

All of these accounts are worth a read. Paul Theroux, in particular, was interesting for his lack of enthusiasm. He was clearly in an especially bad mood on these train travels. Even the romance of the journey could not compensate for being late getting home for Christmas after a long absence, and overwhelmed by the short-day gloom, the dankness and the dirt with which he found himself surrounded.

Speaking of the reputation of Siberia reminds me of one of my university Russian lecturers, John Godliffe, RIP, who edited a book of excerpts from Russian literature that mention New Zealand. Most famously, there is a character in a Chekhov story, I think it was, who is heard to say, “It’s barbarity. It’s New Zealand!”, suggesting that perhaps the Siberians might have had a rather darker view of the attractions of these fortunate isles than Europeans had of travels in Siberia.

Get going

A map of the train’s course shows how southerly the route actually is. Obviously because no one much lives anywhere else in Russia (although presumably where people live is also influenced by the course of the train). The huge distances and lack of navigable roads to me shows the relevance of Lenin’s famous comment in reference to his then just started Bolshevik Revolution “if the trains stop, that will be the end”. Without the railroad, there is no unified Russia, but even then there are many, many places the railroad does not go.

I note that Russia recently opened the final segment of a road that goes all the way across the country, and the then President tweeted about the completion of the trainline from Tynda to Yakutsk. Siberia is a ways out of town, but Yakutsk is seriously in the boondocks. There is also talk of a train from Yakutsk to the Russian Pacific coast by 2030, and a tunnel underneath the Bering Straits, meaning a continuous rail journey would be possible from London to North America via Russia. Fun times. And cause for a whole new collection of trans-Chukotkan travel stories, I suspect.

On pre-echoes and their practical relevance

A sort of book review of Tiziano Terzani’s book, “A Fortune Teller Told Me”

Told by a fortune teller in the 1970s not to fly at all during 1993, Mr Terzani, an Asia-based journalist for significant Western newspapers had a long time to consider his dilemma . Did he follow the advice of this prognosticator, change his professional life profoundly for a year, and implicitly accept that his western, scientific scepticism of those who predict futures was not the full story. Or did he ignore the advice, scoff at what might have been his fate, and continue to scoot about the place on planes?

The result of his decision forms the background for this thoughtful, charming and brilliant book, recently re-read after being unexpectedly found on a friend’s bookshelf. First published in 1997, it is many things: a brilliant literary travelogue through the countries of South-East Asia, a meditation on globalisation and the consequences of economic development, and an exploration of the world of fate and fortune-tellers – a personal tour through the layer of mysticism and superstition that underlies society, particularly in the east.

Mr Terzani venerates the past. He struggles to review the present dispassionately because he sees economic progress as fundamentally compromising traditions he has long respected – in his view progress evens out the differences in the world and makes the world a less interesting, less human place. And he is therefore fundamentally sceptical as to whether the future is a cause for hope or for despair.

I particularly like mysticism as a counter-point to our age of common sense, and cause and effect. It seems to me that practicalities too often intervene before motivation, by which I mean that ideas are killed by a thousands tut-tuts because it is thought that they won’t work even before the question is asked about whether we really want to pursue these ideas or not. The fact that there is no alternative is not a good argument for anything: it undermines the very creativity and participation that is helpful in resolving our societal dilemmas.

The effect of all this rationalism is that there are fewer and fewer places for non-rational thinking to hide in the world. Religion, art, dreams, superstition. These are powerful expressions of the limits of human reasoning, and the importance of surprise, principles, and unpredictable connections between ideas to our continued ability to flourish.

So, to my mind, all power to art, unpredictability, dreaming, foolishness, and creative thinking in the world. Boo to too much rationalism, over-assessment of the inherently unpredictable, and the intellectual arrogance of decision-makers choosing before they really understand. More scratch and sniff. Less wait and see.

To that end, I present my theory of pre-echoes. The idea is simple: once you have decided to do something, other people can get an idea of what is going to happen in the future as a result of your intention. So I am driving from Wellington to Auckland, and a friend sends me a message asking if she just saw me crossing Fort Street in downtown Auckland. I haven’t got there yet, but the pre-echo of my future arrival was already detectable. Or your mother suddenly pops into your mind, and a minute later she calls you. A coincidence from one point of view, but a pre-echo from another – you know that she is going to call because she has decided to. I think of it as like a radio on some distance away on a windy day. Sometimes you can just catch enough to know the name of the tune, sometimes events intervene to prevent it.

This is clearly a rather whimsical idea. Since it is impossible (I think) to test, it is fundamentally unscientific. I am surprised by many things every day, despite the existence of pre-echoes, and so clearly my theory is either not foolproof or it needs substantial refinement to fit the facts as I encounter them. My theory is also not especially helpful for predicting future events – another standard test of the quality of theories. It does not prevent people changing their mind or limit the ability of free-will. And I know not what the transmission mechanism is from someone else’s made-up mind to my own.

If I were in a mood to defend the science of my theory, I might note that science has moved along rather a lot over time and in surprising directions. The earth (not the sun) was once thought the centre of the galaxy, cholera was once thought to be caused by dirty air, radiation only showed up at the turn of the nineteenth century, vitamins remained a mystery until the 1950s, things thought impossible (space travel, mobile phones, decent coffee at petrol stations) have become reality. No reason to doubt, therefore, that science will stumble across pre-echoes at some point.

All of this science talk is all very well, but that is not, of course, the point of my pre-echo story. Pre-echoes come from a different world that exists alongside the world that we all accept as real every day. A world where time’s arrow does not necessarily travel in a single direction. A world where what would be called magic and dreams have a function and an effect. A world where things are connected in much more complex ways than the cause and effect story that we imbibe with our mother’s milk. A world, let’s face it, rather more intriguing and mysterious than the one we actually inhabit.

It is the same world from which come basic western superstitions. Some that I respect, for better or worse, are the importance of the 1st of the month for luck in the month following, a fear of doing anything too important on Friday the 13th, casting some salt over my left shoulder if I drop any on the floor, saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, and wishing on rainbows and over birthday candles.

Happily for me and my theory, Mr Terzani talks about something similar, referring to the thoughts of the prince soon to become Buddha in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha when sitting on a hill looking at a river:

It strikes him that once the measurement of time is waived, the past and the future are ever-present – like the river, which at one and the same moment exists not only where he sees it to be, but also at its source and at its mouth. The water which has yet to pass is tomorrow, but it already exists upstream; and that which has passed is yesterday, but it still exists, elsewhere, downstream.

There are eddies and tributaries, dams and irrigation schemes, but that does not affect the basic point about the connectedness of what we call the past, present and future, and the powerfulness of the idea that our concept of time is not the complete answer.

Mr Terzani goes on, while looking at a river intersection in Laos:

It seemed to me that that conjunction and mingling of muddy waters was, like life – mine included – made up of so many streams. It seemed that past, present and future were no longer distinguishable one from another: they were all there, in that relentless flow. Fifty-five years had slipped away like the great river rolling towards the China Sea; the rest of my time on earth was already welling up in the Himalayan slopes, already underway moving towards me along the same channel, clearly defined and counted to the last hour. If I had had a higher perch than that hill I might have been able to see more of the river, in both directions. And thus could I have seen more past, more future?

This connection of past, present and future is a powerful theme throughout the book as Mr Terzani consults the most famed fortune-teller he can find in every country that he visits. As a journalist, he reports the differences and similarities in how they ply their craft, and gives his views on whether they actually have any unique capabilities. Rationally speaking, he assesses if they are sufficiently accurate in telling him his own past (something they all do as part of the process) that he can ascribe them some credibility as advisers on what is going to happen in the future.

As the book goes on and the number of fortune-tellers grows, he sadly concludes that most are in a business like any other, i.e., selling predictions of the future that others are willing to pay for. They have a standard patter, and present a hodge-podge of culturally-influenced generalisations that are true enough for enough people to sound profound, while any firm predictions are couched in such a way that they can not be obviously wrong. But predicting the future is not really the point of fortune-tellers, in his view. They are not actually selling predictions. They are selling a combination of reassurance and warning, helping people feel better about their pasts, and more secure or cautious – depending on the story – about their futures.

But intriguingly, Mr Terzani also continues to accept that there might be something in it. That there might be some fortune-tellers who really can do as they say on the tin. He quotes from a London-based fortune-teller called Norman, responding to the question of whether he can really predict the future:

‘Not 100 per cent, otherwise we would no longer have any responsibility for our actions’, he said. ‘The cards read the shadows of things, of events. What I can do is help people to change the position of the light, and then, with free will, they can change the shadows. That I really do believe: you can change the shadows.’

Which feels a bit to me like my pre-echo theory. Sometimes you can pick up the shadows of future events, without really knowing how or why.

Fascinatingly, it turns out that the author did in fact avoid an air crash by following the advice he was given 16 years prior. A helicopter he was meant to be on crashed near Siem Reap, Cambodia in March 1994.

There is also an interesting minor riff on the complexity of cause and effect throughout the book. Once the web of influences becomes sufficiently complicated, any event can start to look like magic, and disentangling what is actually responsible is more an act of story-telling than it is of science.

The chain of cause and effect that links human affairs is endless, and that means they remain without a real explanation. I was on that ship as the result of an infinite series of ‘becauses’, of which it was impossible to establish the first. That is the maddening thing about destiny – and the wonderful thing.

There is always an inexplicable bridge of San Luis Rey, where different people with different stories, coming from different places, meet by chance at the moment when the bridge collapses, to die together in the abyss. But the first step of each of the journeys which end in the assignation cannot be retraced.

In my case, any starting point that I might fix – the fortune-teller in Hong Kong, the escape from death in Cambodia, the decision in Laos, even my own birth – was not it. Perhaps because, when you come down to it, there really is no beginning.

It seems to me this question comes down, as usual with interesting things, to a question of underlying beliefs. Perhaps human action is like the weather, i.e., something that is very complex but fundamentally based on a few, knowable rules. If it is, then we could look forward to a time when the future can be predicted with total accuracy. All that is needed is enough information on the right things and sufficient computing power and time.

Mr Terzani meets a meteorologist who says that his science has almost reached this point. At present, the meterologist says that scientists can predict the weather with 99 percent accuracy for the next three days (I am not sure this is true of the weather forecasters I rely on, but however). The next step, says the meteorologist, is mastering the theory of chaos, and this will enable exact weather predictions two or three years in advance.

“Why can you not predict human actions”, inquires Mr Terzani, perhaps archly. “They too have complex causes and effects”.

Back from a cold place

The Coldest March – A review of the book by Susan Solomon

There is something at once compelling and horrifying about the stories from the heroic age of polar exploration. Perhaps the compulsion is the horror. A few absurdly hardy men, an indifferent, hazardous environment, a minimum three year stay at a tiny outpost of civilisation built on the shores of a frozen sea, and all to get the opportunity to spend three or four months hiking across the un-mapped interior, fighting every day against starvation and the cold, to see who will be the first to reach a point on the globe that looks no different from any other.

The mindset of explorers is hard to explain or to justify – the huge imbalance between apparent risks and reward, and the enormous effort required to undertake an expedition with deeply uncertain outcomes seem near assured to induce a bout of head-shaking amongst the mums of the world. Climbing mountains, visiting space, or plumbing the depths of the world’s oceans have similar characteristics. One gets the impression that the scientific goals, while worthy and important and looming large in the story of Antarctic especially, are a justification after the fact. Really the reason why is just because we want to see if we can do it, and in particular to see who can do it first.

There are many excellent accounts of and books on Antarctic exploration in the early years of the twentieth century. Amongst them are Scott’s diaries, Shackleton’s “South”, Roland Huntford’s biography of Shackleton and his account of the race between Scott and Amundsen, Apsley Cherry-Gerard’s “The Worst Journey in the World”, Douglas Mawson’s “The Home of the Blizzard”, and (from a little later on) Admiral Richard Byrd’s “Alone”.

One could be forgiven for thinking that there wouldn’t be much to add to this impressive record, particularly in the case of Scott’s last expedition, whose arc is so well known: the first expedition with Shackleton – later his rival, the long preparations for the second, the hard trudge to the South Pole only to find that Amundsen had beaten them there by a month, and then the walk back towards safety, fatal to all hands, with the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers found in the tent that was their final camp, and the bodies of Evans and Oates never found where they fell earlier on the trek.

The competing hypotheses for what went wrong are also well-known, chief among them incompetence (especially by Scott – the competing views of history have him as either a true hero in the classic British mold, or a noted bumbler whose hopelessness determined his fate), disease (scurvy), poor preparation (wrong equipment, not enough dogs, poor rations), poor execution (too much walking, too much time spent on science), or bald misfortune.

Like authors before her, Ms Solomon reviews the main elements of Scott’s polar story, and wants to put forward her view of what went wrong. But, as an Antarctic weather expert, she has another hypothesis to test. She says that, while in Antarctica for her research on the ozone layer, she grew interested in the question of whether unseasonably cold weather in the March of Scott’s return trek could provide another explanation for some of his miseries and ultimately his demise.

Armed with new weather data from automatic stations placed in the 1980s along the path Scott took, and with all the data from Scott’s expedition carefully analysed by Dr George Simpson, Scott’s meteorologist, in his report of 1919, she finds support for her view: an unpredictably cold March was a major contribution to the untimely death of Captain Scott and his party. This is a clear-eyed reassessment of Scott’s story, not a hagiography. Ms Solomon does not shirk from pointing out Scott’s mistakes and failures – indeed, Scott himself was forthright about his errors – but Ms Solomon’s argument that weather played a fatal role is calmly argued and carefully supported through the text.

Along the way, Ms Solomon provides an education into important aspects of the Antarctic environment, and unearths some genuinely new insights and ideas about what might have happened down at the bottom of the world nearly a hundred years ago. I will leave you to read the book for yourself but the ending struck me as particularly inspired – a genuinely new take on a well-known story: a twist in the tail, if you will, informed by the new information from the weather record.

As well as a lot of new data, Ms Solomon brings one clever approach to the narrative. At the start of each chapter she presents a scene of a mythical, modern-day Antarctic visitor that demonstrates key information on Antartica and the main challenges facing a traveller walking to the South Pole pulling a heavy sledge, e.g., the basic geography, the impact of different temperatures on the ease of travelling across the surface, what counts as appropriate clothing, the effects of blizzards, or the dangers of frostbite. These scenes at the start of every chapter could easily come across as superficial or trite, but actually they really work to bring home the reality of the difficulties faced by Scott in getting through, and the unfairness of many criticisms levelled at him after his death (one expects mostly by those who had never experienced the environment themselves). These vignettes make it clear how tenuous the continuation of human life is in Antarctica. Even very tiny mis-steps lead inexorably to catastrophe.

Overall this book is an excellent addition to the stories of Antarctica. A compelling reminder of Scott’s herioc journeys, and the fine line between success and failure in any great endeavour, but also a genuinely new take on a very well-rehearsed historical issue, complementing the first-hand accounts of the explorers with analysis that has only become possible with modern weather data.

Ms Solomon’s book perhaps contributes to a reassessment of Scott, who was lionised in the first years after his death, and then came to be seen as an amateur who essentially killed himself and his party through his ineptitude and poor decision-making. These two views of the man still compete for attention today. No one element can be said to be the cause of the tragedy. There are many things that could have, should have or would have been done but for. Yes, if Scott had moved more quickly and started earlier on the polar hike (like Amundsen with more dogs and no ponies, which prevented a start in October), or yes if the diet of the party and its equipping and preparation had been better (more time on skis, better sleeping bags), or if Scott had consistently made choices with higher margins for error rather than choices that should have been okay but were not, then the outcomes could have been different.

But the polar party did keep generally to their planned timeframe. They expected to be returning across the last few hundred miles of the barrier in March as the winter came quickly on. And so they made very careful scientific assessment of what weather they should expect. As Ms Solomon shows, nothing in that assessment was seriously awry, and nothing could have led them to expect the weather that they ultimately encountered. As Ms Solomon concludes, the weather took their lives.

This book also inspired me to look more closely at the details of Cherry-Gerard’s wait at One Ton Camp at 80D South depot for Scott’s polar party, who were then struggling to what would be their deaths a mere 100 miles further south. To my mind this episode goes down in history as amongst the greatest moments in polar exploration. My personal list also includes Shackleton’s decision to turn around less than 100 miles from the Pole in 1909 when it was clear that he could be the first to the Pole but only at the price of his life and those of his party, Oates walking out of the tent to his death on the return journey with Scott, in a indescribably noble attempt (on his own birthday, no less) to save the lives of those he was travelling with, on the basis that he thought was slowing them down through his sickness, and Douglas Mawson’s nightmarish sledging expedition with two comrades in 1912 when one fell into a crevasse with much of the expedition’s food and equipment, and the other comrade died from what is now suspected to have been vitamin poisoning from eating dog liver, leaving Mawson, terribly unwell himself, to struggle back the last 100 miles alone.

Apsley Cherry-Gerard questioned many times in the course of his post-polar life whether, had he broken his orders and headed further south, he might have saved Scott and the then three remaining members of his polar party. Surely the physical challenges associated with such a mercy dash were enormous – Cherry-Gerard had no idea where Scott was, strictly limited cooking fuel and food for himself, his companion Dimitri Gerof the dog wrangler, and the dogs they travelled with, and unique difficulties with the cold environment (his glasses were not the ideal equipment in freezing conditions since they soon frosted up from condensation, rendering him effectively blind). In addition, by the time they reached One Ton Camp Dmitri was ill and the dogs were in a poor way. So even if he had gone further south in direct contravention of his orders, getting back could have been a very dicey proposition. In addition, the polar party were not expected at One Ton camp until March 10 at the earliest, and so, at the time when he had to consider the issue, there were no concerns at all for the welfare of Scott and his group.

As far as I can figure it, the distances are as set out below. You can see how achingly close the two groups were – from my reading a decent day’s marching was 12-15 miles, and in a good day with dogs pulling the sledges a party could cover as much as 30 miles. One degree of latitude is 69 miles.

Date Cherry-Gerard location Scott’s party location Distance between
Feb 26 77D52′ (Hut Point)
March 3 79D29′ (One Ton Depot)
March 5 79D29′ Near 81D S ~ 105 miles
March 8 79D29′ 80D45′ S ~ 87 miles
March 10 Left for Hut Point 80D31′ S ~ 71 miles

Scott, Wilson and Bowers died around 29 March 1912 at about 79D40 – around 11 miles from the supplies at One Ton camp, and only a few days good marching for healthy men from the safety of Hut Point.

Things your parents probably didn’t know

A few thoughts on Sex, A Natural History, by Joann Ellison Rodgers

There is a lot that I do not know.

I think it is very helpful to be reminded about that from time to time. This is partly, I am sure, why I read non-fiction. And on the subject of sex I am particularly clueless (something to which, mercifully, only relatively few of you are witness). So this seems like a bonza of a book, chock full of updates on the state of scientific knowledge on a subject of crucial importance but where most of us (notice what I did there?) are lacking in a few clues.

And in many ways it delivers. In its five hundred pages are a chapter on genes and theories on why sex exists, one on what your bits are up to during sex, one on what your brain is doing, some stuff on first meetings, on how dating works, on aphrodisiacs, committment, sexual deviance, and alternatives to the standard model. A bewildering variety of interesting issues. And covered not just from a human point of view – you may be alarmed or amazed by how similar human sexual activity is to that of other animals.

It is also, I think, about 10% too long, a bit repetitive, and generally a little under-edited in parts. Sometimes it felt like a reference book than one of popular science. A few more sub-headings would have helped to understand where we were at. Some of the pointy-headed scientific stuff (particularly on genes) was way over my head. And it might have even benefited from a summary in each chapter of the key points. But then these days I struggle to stay attentive sufficiently long to follow complex argument. So perhaps you might not have such trouble.

The book often comes across as unduly rational and practical on issues that are much more complex and emotional in real (human) life than in the case of scientists observing animal sexual behaviour in the lab. This makes the book interesting at a theoretic level, but practically not that helpful or insightful at predicting actual human behaviour. In particular, humans come across as highly unusual amongst animals in that they mostly end up in stable long-term relationships with one other person that are the basis for bringing up children, and those children remain dependent on their parents for an inordinately long period of time. It is fine, and all very interesting, to point out why this might or might have been the winning approach from an evolutionary point of view, or from the point of view of the genes or gametes involved. But it does rather trivialise all the other parts of the sex equation that real humans face up to in real life day to day, and the kinds of issues that are relevant in their sexual and relationship decision-making.

I also personally struggle with theories that hark back to caveman times to explain anything, i.e., evolved approach x to issue y would have been optimal for stone-age people for reason z. It just seems like the justifications could be entirely made up. The real world has a way of being much more complex, and no one can tell either way what Barney and Betty (or Wilma) were up to back then anyway.

The most interesting parts were the ones that described how people actually behave, especially in first meetings, in flirting and dating, and the chapter about people with non-standard heterosexual desires. The former because I can see around me every day in every bar the behaviours described, and see them in myself as much as I hate to admit that I am both predictable and typical. And the latter because everyone is curious about deviance, and I suspect, at least in the case of sex, that we are all doing things we would rather no one apart from our partner ever found out about. And even with him/her we might be a bit squeamish about discussing it in the cold light of day.

Plus it has “SEX” written across the cover in large letters. Which means that no matter where you are when you read it, people wonder (but do not ask) what you are up to. Fun times.