Monsters from the Id

Well, everything is running slow here. We had a heating boiler failure while the temperature dropped to -10C, now it’s fixed and the temperature barely gets below 5C. Still, it was good exercise for the wood burning stove. That’s now back in ‘supplemental’ mode but at least it’s been properly tested. The landlord has also provided a log-basket fireplace for the utility room (which has no heating of any kind) so that 18th century fireplace with the iron swing-arm pot holder should soon be back in use. It’s actually at least 100 years younger than the one in the living room…

We could indeed use it, and the living room wood burner, for cooking if it came down to it. Yes, we can party like it’s 1699. With rabbit, partridge, pheasant and possibly venison. The guy who runs the local deer cull is known to us – and before you start shedding Bambi tears, have you ever turned a corner in the road and faced a deer staring at you? If you hit one at speed it will die and there’s a very good chance you will too. Since there are no longer wolves in Scotland, the only predators deer get are ticks and the population can quickly get out of control. I’ve had quite a few near misses since they seem to find it funny to jump out in front of cars.

It could well become neccessary. There is currently a massive push to get us to live on locusts, mealworms and/or vegetables. You know, that green shit that grows in the dirt and the nasty crawly things that live in it. No meat. Not for us plebs anyway. Although if a few of the New Stasi go missing, who’d notice?

Anyway, we’re being pushed into a Brave New World. Aldous Huxley took the title from a line in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, you know, a line spoken by the deformed maniac Caliban. The title of this post comes from ‘Forbidden Planet’, a film based upon the same play. Sometimes the connections are obscure but I think this one was too easy for a competition.

The Monsters from the Id (subconscious) are all around us now, dragged from the shadows by the manipulations surrounding Covid. Manipulations that lead to a new world indeed, a world of misery and despair in which we will own nothing and be happy. Or dead. The Righteous Ones are fine with either outcome.

I recall when butter was demonised to make way for the New Spreadable Plastic Crap In A Tub, culminating in ‘I can’t believe anyone is daft enough to think this is butter’. Lard, too, was replaced by the various cooking oils. The old ways were deemed Bad even though obesity and other ailments were far less prevalent in those days. It was always about money of course. You can’t sell something new when a perfectly good alternative already exists so you have to make the alternative bad.

So it is today. Massive investment into edible insects means meat must be demonised. Nobody is going to swap a bacon sandwich for bread with wrigglies in it willingly. They have to be convinced that the meat is going to kill them. Incidentally, proper bread recipes include a bit of lard…

Well, the whole ‘cows cause climate change’ thing hasn’t worked, so cows have not yet been rendered extinct. We can still get a burger. Now of course you can get a burger made of massively processed plant material instead of actual meat. Well, not for me, thanks all the same.

So what’s next on the ‘meat is deadly’ agenda? Simple. Recycle something we’ve known about for many years as a new and terrifying development.

When I was at university, 1978-1981 for my first degree, we examined plasmid transfer in a practical class. I have since run such classes myself. Bacterial genomes are not like plant or animal genomes. They are made of the same stuff – DNA – but they are not organised into chromosomes. There’s no structure. A bacterium does not have a nucleus, its DNA is one long circle that just floats about in the cell.

It can also have little circles of DNA separate from its main DNA. These are plasmids and they can be transferred between bacteria. They send a copy of themselves along a tube called a pilus when two bacteria connect and if you break the connection at set times, you can work out the order of genes on the plasmid. But I don’t want to get into full lecture mode. Suffice to say, this is nothing new.

The non-structured circular DNA of a bacterium has another feature. Unlike the rigid-ish structure of plant or animal chromosomal DNA, it is very, very easy to insert an extra bit into the main DNA in a bacterium. They can pick up fragments from the environment, they might insert them, they might not. The scale of numbers we are talking about with bacteria means that the chance of a few insertions is actually pretty high.

There are viruses that infect bacteria. These are bacteriophages, and they only infect bacteria. Just like the ones we get, they are fussy about which bacteria they infect so one that bursts from an infected E. coli is hoping to find another E. coli nearby.

I’ve previously explained how viruses are mindless and inefficient copying machines. These are no different. The bacteriophage particles, when assembling inside the cell, don’t all get loaded with bacteriophage DNA. Sometimes they get loaded with bits of host DNA instead and when they ‘infect’ another cell, instead of making viruses they ‘gift’ the cell with some DNA from another cell. As a bonus, when one bacteriophage enters a cell it blocks all others from entering. So if it injects bacterial DNA, that bacterium is now immune to any real viruses.

As with DNA picked up from the environment, sometimes the bacterium inserts it into its own genome, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the new DNA forms a plasmid. Since we are always talking in billions with bacteria, it doesn’t have to happen very often to produce something new.

None of this entails new discoveries. We’ve known about all of it for a very long time. Sure, you can be scared of it if you want but it’s going to happen anyway. It’s been happening since long, long before we even knew DNA existed and there is nothing we can do about it.

Well, there is one thing. If meat is cleanly slaughtered it should not be coated with gut contents. Even if it is, cooking it thoroughly will kill any bacteria that might be on it. Chicken is a special case – nothing to do with gene transfer, it’s because Campylobacter can get into the muscle tissues. So chicken realy does need to be cooked through. You can get away with a rare steak, but rare chicken is taking a huge risk. Again, this is not one of my lectures (well, maybe a bit, old habits die hard).

I wonder if this is part of the Internet effect. When I did my first and second degree, the internet didn’t exist and computers were only just getting into homes. And I’m talking about Sinclair ZX-81’s and BBC’s for those who could afford them. A BBC computer with Cub monitor and Cumana disk drives was quite an outlay in those days. Some years later I bought three of them for a fiver each – they’re fun but the internet is way beyond them. But I digress.

When I did my degrees we had to go to the library to look things up, and often that involved going into The Stacks, in the basement, where the old stuff was stored. Once the internet took off, that changed rapidly. Now you can sit at your desk and search PubMed and other science databases – but certainly at first (and probably even now) the internet didn’t go very far back.

I started seeing papers published that made me look twice. Some Lactobacilli can grow in air? I had a reference to that from the early 1970s, it was not a new discovery in 1990. There were a lot more like this and I realised that the internet was only documenting research from around 1985. Earlier stuff was still on paper, in The Stacks, and nobody went there any more. If it wasn’t on the desktop and accessible online, it didn’t exist.

I have seen so much more of this since. An entirely unrelated one – when firing a bow, you don’t grip the bow because that will make your wrist twist when you fire and you’ll be off target. I’ve watched people fire bows and then slowly dip and raise them deliberately with a firm grip throughout. It’s wrong. It’s what it must look like in action but the ‘dip’ is because you weren’t holding the bow too tight. Not some little theatrical thing. It comes from an internet that doesn’t go back very far.

If I’m feeling generous I could accept that these researchers have only looked online for the past research and think they are onto something new. In fact this stuff stopped being publish-worthy a very, very long time ago. So it’s not in their searches because nobody has scanned those papers into the net yet. Or maybe they have, as PDFs, which won’t listen to a keyword search.

If I’m feeling cynical, as I usually am these days, I can see it as a deliberate attempt to scare people away from meats, by pretending we’ve only just found out how gut bacteria change while, naturally, ignoring one small detail.

Insects have gut bacteria too.

17 thoughts on “Monsters from the Id

  1. Lovely stuff. I have tried to make similar points to people re the internet being a less than perfect ‘research’ tool, with loads of good work being effectively lost from view.

    My own daughter (she didn’t seem to inherit any maths or science genes) frequently tells me that I am “out of date” because I started my first degree in 1970, so everything I picked up then must have been superseded.

    I’m sure you never get those accusations thrown at you, but it seems to me that peeps who did maths, science & engineering in the ’70s were encouraged connect with first principles, to question & to be sceptical whereas modern bits of paper require no more than regurgitation. Highly apt given the trajectory of the diets to be imposed upon us.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I enjoy these intellectual discussions, so here’s a conundrum which science has, so far, failed to address. Why are Burger King burgers better than MacDonalds but MacDonalds coffee is so much better than Burger King’s? I read somewhere that McDonalds’ coffee machines aren’t cleaned very often: is that part of the answer?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s another problem with modern research: repeatability. I am certain that were another spotty recent graduate to go out and repeat my PhD work, they would get exactly the same results. They would also begin by looking down their noses in pity at the early workers in Rothamsted, before belatedly realising just how skilled these people were, and finally duplicating their techniques.

    Believe me, if you want to study nematode worms, then when you can visualise the tracks that an animal a millimetre long leaves on agar gel, then you are getting skilled. I was that skilled at the end, but I had to learn that skill the hard way just like the earlier workers did. Their work and mine are repeatable.

    Modern experimenters are taught that churning out lots of work that scores highly in the impact stakes is what counts. It is this attitude that led one head of department whom I shall only refer to as The Beard to say to a researcher “Get the results now, and do the calibration curve afterwards”. The researcher disobeyed this suggestion of course, but this is the modern attitude: get published and bollocks to anything else and it is this which means that a lot of research isn’t repeatable, and as such cannot really be checked.

    This also carries over to the Climate Change wallahs. The release of code from the University of Easy Anglia was one such revelation. Now, I have a different mind to most people; it’s called autism and it results in people not being very interesting to me. So it was with the UEA leak; the emails which journalists raved over were not my focus of attention. Instead the code, and the HARRY.README file were. To understand these, you have to understand how the actual coding was done in that place.

    Climate scientists know about climate and atmospheric physics. They are not computer programmers, and computer programming is an entirely separate discipline and science all of its own. Both require huge experience and talent to become good at, and people good at both are rare indeed. The UEA project was a huge programming project, and best practise for code is to have the outgoing maintainer and the incoming new maintainer work alongside each other for months to transfer knowledge and working practices (which occasionally results in the new guy running screaming into the darkness).

    UEA didn’t do that. They did the opposite, so there was actually a gap of time between maintainers and no interpersonal knowledge transfer. Hence the second maintainer wrote the HARRY.README file for the third in line, Harry. I’m glad this was done, because it shows what an absolute rogering tosspot the original coder was, and it also shows why non-programmers and self-taught programmers absolutely MUST be heavily supervised. Mr second in line was told on joining that he had a mature, stable project which only needed minor feature additions to continue to work. Mr 2nd was being unwittingly lied to by the project leaders who had no idea what a dog’s breakfast the project was.

    Computer programs are frequently broken up into lots of sub-units, each doing specific tasks. A sub-unit communicates with whatever called it using exit codes which it transmits back when it completes a task and exits. This is standard practice, but you do have to put these codes in, and the original coder hadn’t bothered in a lot of cases. That meant that a sub-section could encounter a problem and fail and whatever called it wouldn’t have a clue and would carry blithely on in ignorance. The whole system would then suffer multiple internal problems and carry on and churn out utter bollocks for an answer due merely to the utter incompetence of the original coder.

    This is what we are up against with Climate Change: these guys refuse to have their code audited, because they know what will be found, and they know that an audit means no more career.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Insect gut bacteria will presumably be mashed up with the rest of the insect, whereas we tend to avoid eating animal guts. So under-cooked insects could be worse than under-cooked chicken. Yum!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I can well remember back in about 1970 reading a food article in the Daily Telegraph – Common Market policies would mean a reduction in meat-eating, and if we got in more, pasta would be on the menu – although I liked spaghetti and macaroni because of the meat sauces I didn’t know what “pasta” meant so sought information … I didn’t understand then, and I still don’t, what the internationalists had against meat (I don’t think the methane scare was much in evidence then) and I wondered what the benefit of the Self-Denying Ordinance would be …about 10 years ago half-witted telly shows for the subnormal started showing “stars”, transported to the jungles of Papua,eating (for money, natch) long-leggedy beasties and caterpillars – although I’d heard of stokers on old steamships boiling up buckets of cockroaches and tucking in – I wondered if there was some special intention behind this craze … how long back do these plans for a New Reformation go? Certainly HG Wells (otherwise no enemy to fleshly indulgence) was on about the evils of meat-eating in the early 1900’s …

    Liked by 1 person

  6. you know, a line spoken by the deformed maniac Caliban. NO!

    Miranda:
    O, wonder!
    How many goodly creatures are there here!
    How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
    That has such people in’t!

    The Tempest V.i.184โ€“187

    Liked by 1 person

      • Was part of my A’level in 1973. Although, thinking about it, memories can be unreliable: I certainly studied it in relation to Huxley, and that was paired with Orwell. What I can no longer recall is which of Animal Farm, 1984, or BNW was the text we studied for several months before Teacher realised that it had been dropped from the syllabus that year.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. As I’m being picky: “PDFs, which wonโ€™t listen to a keyword search.”
    A PDF from a digital original can be searched, but a PDF of an older publication is most likely a scanned image, calls itself *.pdf , opens like a pdf, but just a page scan.
    The old way: you read a paper, you looked at the bibliography and references, you went to ‘the stacks’ and checked those antecedents and provenance; if you were diligent you went back down the chain to the origin. Now, the chain is broken, so much is hearsay.

    Liked by 2 people

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