The Cutting Edge

I occasionally wonder why it was that when ‘advanced’ human civilisations started to appear, they were nearly all in the 20° – 40° North latitudes: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and in the New World, Mexico.

My best theory goes something like this: North of those latitudes it was just too darn cold throughout the winter, so hardly anyone lived there. Life there was just too hard. And south of those latitudes, rather paradoxically, life was just too easy. If you lived in the tropical regions of the world, it was warm all year round and you didn’t need to wear clothes or build anything other than the simplest huts, and food plants and animals were abundant. What else did you need? Amazonian Indians still live exactly that way.

It was only in the mid-latitudes, where life was neither too hard nor too easy, that it was possible to live tolerably well, so long as you had good tools, farms, and stone or timber buildings, and domesticated animals. All this required innovation, and it happened here because it was the only place where innovation was both needed and possible. And the result was the great early civilisations of four or five thousand years ago – Egypt and all the rest.

And using the technologies developed in these mid-latitude civilisations (bronze and iron tools and so on), humans started to be able to live further north. And so the cutting edge of civilisation moved north into Greece and then Rome.

And then a couple of thousand years later it moved further north into Britain and Northern Europe, resulting in the Industrial Revolution of the past few hundred years.

The general rule seems to be that the further north you live, the harder life is. It’s colder for a start, so you need more clothes and more substantial buildings and more fuel to keep them warm. And all this requires more work, and because more work is done, more food is needed. The result is that Northerners tend to have harder lives than Southerners. They are more hard-working, simply because they have to be. And because their lives are harder, they tend to live rather spartan lives devoid of luxuries, and to frown on waste and excess (e.g. beer and cigarettes) in a puritanical manner. There’s no place for such luxuries at the cutting edge. It’s the soft, effete southerners who live idle lives surrounded by luxuries like that.

It’s said that the current difference between northern and southern Europe (which is the cause of so much turmoil in the EU these days) is because of ‘cultural’ differences. e.g:

EMU’s fundamental problem, which is the 30pc gap in competitiveness between North and South

The way people talk about it, it’s almost as if Greece and Spain and Italy could do with a transfusion of a Germanic frugality and work ethic, as if that was something that came with German genes.

But I suspect that this gap of ‘competititiveness’ has little or nothing to do with culture or genes, and everything to do with climate, and where the northward-moving cutting edge of civilisation happens to be at any point in time. And that in a few hundred years time, when the cutting edge has moved up into Sweden and Norway and Finland, and everything new and innovative happens in Oslo and Stockholm and Helsinki, the industrious Nordics there will be complaining about the idle ways of the feckless Germans and Britons and French, and how it’s impossible to get them to take life seriously.

Much the same pattern seems to have been followed in the New World, where the cutting edge of innovation has also been moving slowly northwards, first from Mexico up into the Southern States, and then to the northern industrial states of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile it’s the deep South that plays the role of America’s Italy and Greece, and the cultural centre of the USA is the Hollywood dream-factory in ever-sunny California. In a few centuries time, the cutting edge will have moved up into Canada, and US presidents will be going cap-in-hand looking for bail-outs from booming Winnipeg and Charlottetown.

The end result, a few thousand years hence, will be that the entire planet will be habitable. There will be cities in Antarctica and the Sahara desert and high in the Himalayas, where almost nobody lives now, because it’s just too hard. There will even be cities out at sea. Next stop will be the Moon and Mars (which are too darn cold and airless right now), and visiting Earth will be like visiting Athens or New Orleans, and it will all seem so quaint and backward.

Paradoxically, the effect of climate change – .i.e. global warming (if it happens) – will be to hasten this process. It will push the cutting edge nearer the poles. And as humans learn to live and prosper in more and more extreme environments, this will ready them for life on the Moon and Mars, or on spinning space stations full of plants and animals and birds and insects (launched with Orbital Siphons) . But on these space stations, humans will live hard-working lives. And they’ll be penny-wise and puritanical. There’ll be no smoking or drinking on Centaurus 17. You’d have to go back to the indolent Earth to do that.


About Frank Davis

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25 Responses to The Cutting Edge

  1. “The end result, a few thousand years hence, will be that the entire planet will be habitable. ”

    Actually, I’d put that at a few hundred years hence if technology keeps developing without disasters. I’d guess that within a single hundred years we’ll be able to throw up some sort of semi permeable “dome” covering multi-square-miles with little more than the flick of a switch and heat or cool it as we wish.

    One of the problems with the global warming folks (along with the SAMMEC “you’re going to die of lung cancer 50 years from now” folks) is that they ignore technological advances. Yes, it’s true that at current levels of technology we don’t have a cure for our current “problems,” but to think that we don’t have a decent change of developing cures for them over the next fifty or a hundred years is simply silly. A hundred years from now, *IF* the global warmists were correct, there’d probably be a pretty decent fix around involving temperature superconducting technology that will just shoot parawatts of heat energy out into space.

    Similarly, the chances of us NOT finding a fairly decent “cure” for lung cancer and such in the next fifty years or so are probably pretty small. Yeah, those of us in our fifties who might develop it in our 60s or 70s will likely still be in pretty deep doo doo, but if I was 20 and was rationally evaluating the enjoyment I was getting from smoking vs. the worries about cancer 30 to 50 years in the future — well, I don’t think I’d be that worried. Remember how deadly smallpox and syphilis were and how suddenly “fixes” occurred that wiped most of their problems out. Look at how untreatable cataracts were in 1960ish and how easily fixed they were in 1990ish.

    The bottom line is that we simply have no real idea where we’ll be technologically more than ten years or so in the future. Yes, there are lots of projections out there based upon extrapolating from present research and trends… but those projections simply can’t take account of the “new stuff” in the future. I was just re-reading Harrison’s “DeathWorld Trilogy” from the 70s. All kinds of nifty faster than light space drives etc. But they STILL had to shell out the rough equivalent of 100 billion dollars to buy a “library computer” capable of holding a million or so books in its memory. Heck, a decent sized book nowadays takes up about a megabyte of memory. I have an external hard drive smaller than a cigar box with a Terabyte of memory. I could fit a million books into it — literally — and it cost $100. I was just looking at video cards that are about the size of a pack of cigarettes and found that the new ones have roughly three BILLION transistors packed into them. Remember transistor radios that were larger than that in the 60s and had three transistors?

    Frank, if we take “few” to mean “four or five,” your statement about a “few thousand years hence”
    might be more accurate as “a few decades hence.”

    – Michael

    • Frank Davis says:

      Similarly, the chances of us NOT finding a fairly decent “cure” for lung cancer and such in the next fifty years or so are probably pretty small

      Except that the Smoking Causes Lung Cancer guys have effectively stifled research over the past 60 years. Which is why there’s been next to no progress, and lung cancer research is a poor relation to other research fields..

      • harleyrider1978 says:

        Except that the Smoking Causes Lung Cancer guys have effectively stifled research over the past 60 years. Which is why there’s been next to no progress, and lung cancer research is a poor relation to other research fields..

        BINGO! The SG office was created as a political office for just that mission!

      • JJ says:

        You hit the nail on the head there Frank with that observation. No one effectively knows what causes lung cancer. If smoking causes lung cancer, then what about all the pollution we breath in everyday, how would, under examination, would you make that distinction – how would it be possible to tell the difference.

        I have asked this question many times of CRUK, ASH, BHF and the D0H.

        ‘What is the biological sequence of events whereby the inhaltion of smoke from a cigarette, cigar or pipe mutates healthy lung tissue into cancerous lung tissue – and do we know enough about genetics to rule it in or out’?

        I have never had an answer to that question in over 5 years of asking.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      I was just looking at video cards that are about the size of a pack of cigarettes and found that the new ones have roughly three BILLION transistors packed into them. Remember transistor radios that were larger than that in the 60s and had three transistors?

      Ya Mike I use to fix those transistors down to component level as a electronics tech!
      Today its a throw away society because of those donor doped created billions of transistors!

      It made many a repairman lose his bread and butter!

  2. Frank Davis says:

    Incidentally, the “cutting edge” is what Americans would probably think of as being the “frontier”. Quite apart from a slow northerly movement, there was a rapid east-to-west movement as well, as the settlers rolled west on their wagons. And these frontier folk would have been puritans, because out on the frontier there was no place for whisky and tobacco and other luxuries. They couldn’t afford it. That would have all come later. And a great many of these frontier folk would have remained puritans long after they’d settled, because for many of them life remained hard, and it was a real disaster if someone succumbed to the Demon Rum.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      We will be back in the pubs again Frank.

      Papandreou Asks Greeks to Back EU Debt Accord in Referendum

      We just got to be patient and wait,while the nazis implode!

      • harleyrider1978 says:

        El-Erian said in an e-mail today. He also expressed concern that the European Union deal “appears to be unraveling from many sides.”

    • Gary K. says:

      “And these frontier folk would have been puritans, because out on the frontier there was no place for whisky and tobacco and other luxuries. They couldn’t afford it.”

      Those pioneers made their own booze from the materials at hand.

      You can make some pretty stout wine from fruits.

      You do not need tobacco to smoke a pipe, almost any dried plant will do.

      My Grandfather told of his father making dandilion wine and smoking dried corn silk.

      • Gary K. says:

        There was also hard apple cider and plum brandy.

        Our dearest Rose can probably add many more to this list.

      • Rose says:

        Strangely enough Gary, I do.

        Corn silk is delightful.
        When I heard that it was a traditional Amercan tobacco substitue I took some from the corn I grew last year, dried it and tried it. Visually dried corn silk looks very like shredded tobacco and tastes very nice.

        Naturally I took a quick look at the plant chemistry.

        What Are the Benefits of Corn Silk?
        “Corn silk consists of a variety of healthy nutrients, such as vitamin C, hordenine, geraniol, limonene, menthol, niacin, riboflavin, selenium, thymol and vitexin.

        But corn takes us back to another clash with anti-tobacco and eugenics.

        Dr. Joseph Goldberger & the War on Pellagra

        “Pellagra no longer stalks the nation as it once did. But during the early part of the 20th-century, pellagra, a disease that results from a diet deficient in niacin killed, many poor Southerners.
        Dr. Joseph Goldberger, a physician in the U.S. government’s Hygienic Laboratory, the predecessor of the National Institutes of Health, discovered the cause of pellagra and stepped on a number of medical toes when his research experiments showed that diet and not germs (the currently held medical theory) caused the disease.”

        Vol. XVIII No. 1, JULY 1916

        “Early in the spring of 1913 the desirability of the study of pellagra from the viewpoint of heredity as a causative factor was brought to the attention of the Thompson-McFadden Pellagra Commission by Dr. Charles B. Davenport, Eugenics Record Office, Cold Spring Harbor, N. Y.

        So when they found the cure not everyone was happy.

        Medicine: Pellagra Cure

        “Last week the Journal of the American Medical Association printed two articles on pellagra showing the startlingly beneficial results of a new treatment.”

        “Nicotinic acid, a distant relative (about second cousin once removed) of tobacco’s nicotine, is found in yeast, wheat germ and liver. When considerable quantities were fed to some 300 patients with pellagra, their sores healed, their cramps disappeared. Even patients who were violently insane dramatically regained their wits within 48 hours”,9171,788409,00.html
        Now subscriber only

        “The only certain method used by early pellagrologists was to give their patients in the mental hospitals small amounts of nicotinic acid. If they recovered they diagnosed them pellagra, if they did not they diagnosed them schizophrenia”

        Nicotinic Acid Content of Old Gold smoke. – 1941

        “pellagra-preventing vitamin in enriched bread,” 1942, coined from ni(cotinic) ac(id) + -in, chemical suffix; suggested by the American Medical Association as a more commercially viable name than nicotinic acid.
        “The new name was found to be necessary because some anti-tobacco groups warned against enriched bread because it would foster the cigarette habit.” [“Cooperative Consumer,” Feb. 28, 1942]

        “For a long period of history, the niacin deficiency disease, pellagra, was a very serious and fatal problem. Characterized as the disease of the “three Ds,” pellagra causes its victims to experience dermatitis, diarrhea, and dementia. The fourth D was death. As described previously, the classic B3 deficiency occurs mainly in cultures whose diets rely heavily on corn and where the corn is not prepared in a way that releases its niacin.

        One of the first signs of pellagra, or niacin deficiency, is the skin’s sensitivity to light, and the skin becomes rough, thick, and dry (pellagra means “skin that is rough” in Italian). The skin then becomes darkly pigmented, especially in areas of the body prone to be hot and sweaty or those exposed to sun. The first stage of this condition is extreme redness and sensitivity of those exposed areas, and it was from this symptom that the term “redneck,” describing the bright red necks of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century niacin-deficient fieldworkers, came into being.”

        The “Social Dip”:
        Tobacco Use by Mid-19th Century Southern Women

        “According to numerous observers of the time, the most distinctive characteristic that set apart many southern women from their Northern sisters was their fondness for tobacco.”

      • Frank Davis says:

        ok. So I was wrong…

  3. Rose says:

    Coltsfoot – British Tobacco

    “The fumes of dried coltsfoot leaves were used as a remedy in cases of difficulty of breathing, both in ancient Roman times and in Tudor England.
    Lyte, in his translation, 1578, of Dodoens’ “Historie of Plants,” says of coltsfoot: “The parfume of the dryed leaves layde upon quicke coles, taken into the mouth through the pipe of a funnell,or tunnell, helpeth suche as are troubled with the shortnesse of winde, and fetche their breath thicke or often, and do [_sic_] breake without daunger the impostems of the breast.”

    The leaves of coltsfoot and of other plants have often been used as a substitute for tobacco in modern days.
    A correspondent of _Notes and Queries_, in 1897, said that when he was a boy he knew an old Calvinist minister, who used to smoke a dried mixture of the leaves of horehound, yarrow and “foal’s foot” intermingled with a small quantity of tobacco.
    He said it was a very good substitute for the genuine article.

    Similar mixtures, or the leaves of coltsfoot alone, have often been smoked in bygone days by folk who could not afford to smoke tobacco only.”

    “Coltsfoot first arrived in North America from England. Its taxonomic rank is Magnoliopsida: Asterales: Asteraceae. In other words, it is in the daisy family.

    “Old Paris apothecaries boasted the flower’s image on their doorposts (
    The “Tussilago” in coltsfoot’s Linnaean name indicates the plant’s cough-busting properties (RobiTUSSin, anyone?).
    “The smoking of the leaves for a cough has the recommendation of Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, Boyle, and other great authorities, both ancient and modern, Linnaeus stating that the Swedes of his time smoked it for that purpose.

    Smoking the plant this way is supposed to relieve asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory problems.

    Note, though, that we now know the roots can be toxic to the liver; one case exists of an infant’s developing liver disease and dying after its mother ingested coltsfoot during her pregnancy ( Thus, only the leaves and flowers should be used.”

    “Coltsfoot, otherwise known as British Tobacco, is an excellent substitute for tobacco. It is usually smoked on it’s own but can be combined effectively with other herbs for an individual mix. Not only does Coltsfoot help to reduce the cravings for a tobacco cigarette, but it is an expectorant and therefore can be used to support the lungs .”

    However, though I went out and bought some to try, having only known it used before in coltsfoot rock, I wasn’t entirely certain of the plant chemistry when burned and didn’t like the idea of possible liver damage after prolonged use.
    That sort of thing needs to be examined by a scientist.

  4. Gary K. says:

    Migration is not always South to North.

    In the America’s, early man crossed over from Asia in the North and migrated South as population pressures increased.

    Other than improved stone points and blades, there were no tech innovations until after the white men arrived in North America(USA).

    Their number system was worse than Roman numerals and they never had the use of the wheel or the concept of zero as a number.

  5. Rose says:

    “ok. So I was wrong…”

    Frank, are you sure of that?
    Look at the chemistry.

    “Over 1,000,000 families in the rural South eat nothing but salt pork, corn meal and molasses. Their members are frequent victims of that painful deficiency disease, pellagra, with its attendant diarrhea, dementia, dermatitis.”

    It all depends if using a simple, easy to grow source of niacin/nicotinic acid, considered widely as a folk medicine, long before the food fortification programme started, was really a luxury to the seriously niacin deficient.

    Nicotinic Acid Utilization of Tobacco Waste – 22nd July 1960

    “Nicotinic acid was first made by the oxidation of nicotine and Whiffens operate a commercial process in this country starting with tobacco.
    Later they were supplied with nicotine by the British Nicotine Company and continued the oxidation.
    Finally – before the Second World War – they found they were unable to compete with manufacturers starting from quinoline and picoline although it could be made directly from tobacco waste, from pyridine, some other coal tar bases, nicotine, anabasine, nor-nicotine or mixed tobacco alkaloids.
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored work aimed to make nicotine compete, as early as 1942, but although a new catalytic oxidation process was developed quinoline was still the cheapest source of nicotinic acid.”
    Now unavailable

    Effectiveness of food fortification in the United States: the case of pellagra.

    OBJECTIVES: We evaluated the possible role of niacin fortification of the US food supply and other concurrent influences in eliminating the nutritional deficiency disease pellagra. METHODS: We traced chronological changes in pellagra mortality and morbidity and compared them with the development of federal regulations, state laws, and other national activities pertaining to the fortification of cereal-grain products with niacin and other B vitamins.”

    CONCLUSIONS: Food fortification that is designed to restore amounts of nutrients lost through grain milling was an effective tool in preventing pellagra, a classical nutritional deficiency disease, during the 1930s and 1940s, when food availability and variety were considerably less than are currently found in the United States”

  6. Gary K. says:

    “the classic B3 deficiency occurs mainly in cultures whose diets rely heavily on corn and where the corn is not prepared in a way that releases its niacin.”

    OK, you can smoke the cornsilk;but, how do you do corn?
    Canned corn or corn on the cob??

    • Rose says:

      Both for me, with lots of butter
      : )

      Apparently the original inhabitants mixed the corn with lime water which gave access to the niacin content, but the settlers did it their own way.

      “When corn cultivation was adopted worldwide, this preparation method was not accepted because the benefit was not understood. The original cultivators, often heavily dependent on corn, did not suffer from pellagra. Pellagra became common only when corn became a staple that was eaten without the traditional treatment.

      Pellagra was first described in Spain in 1735 by Gaspar Casal, who published a first clinical description in his posthumous “Natural and Medical History of the Asturian Principality” (1762). This led to the disease being known as “Asturian leprosy”, and it is recognized as the first modern pathological description of a syndrome.”

      Which just goes to show that when trying anything new,you should always ask for the instructions.

      How to Prepare Lime Water for Soaking Corn

  7. harleyrider1978 says:

    Lord I remember my granny” born 1888 died 1990 telling me how she use to smoke corn silks as a kid if they ran outta tobaccy! The earliest picture I have of her is 1918 when her and Great grandpap were married after he came home from the great war as a doughboy!

    Now I see some real evidence on it. Thanks Rose

  8. harleyrider1978 says:

    Just crossed my mind,if the convicts get wind of using corn silks and mixing in their state funded nicotine patches and smoked em,it give the NAZIS a real time of it besides the publicity!

  9. harleyrider1978 says:

    No more nicotine patches for Alberta inmates: they’re smoking them!

    Nicotine patches will be banned from Alberta jails after inmates were found using the substance to make hazardous makeshift cigarettes — rolled with paper ripped from bibles. The ban stems from a complaint filed last April to the Occupational Health and Safety by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE).

    Employees at Alberta correctional facilities had complained that inmates were abusing the patches by finding ways to smoke the nicotine. They are known to scrape the nicotine from the patches and then mix it with dried tea, toilet paper, fruit peels, or pencil shavings….

    “This is a real victory for our members, and the government deserves congratulations for acting decisively once it was clear our members concerns about the health impacts of inmates smoking patches had been scientifically established,” said AUPE President Doug Knight.

    The ban goes into partial effect on March 2. Inmates who are legitimately using the patch will be given a grace period to complete their treatment.

    Same thing is going on in australia and new zealand

    • db says:

      ‘once it was clear our members concerns about the health impacts of inmates smoking patches had been scientifically established’.

      I wonder what the main dangers of the patch based fags using dried tea, toilet paper, fruit peels, pencil shavings wrapped in bible paper? No tobacco is combusted and I don’t think even the antis have decided that burnt nicotine poses a health threat to non smokers. After all, if it’s the other things it’s an admission that smoke per se is dangerous and therefore any burning inside any places should be banned. Other than that, this decision must be borne out of spite.

  10. junican says:

    Unintended consequences……….

  11. db says:

    A couple of years ago a TV documentary examined how civilisations had developed. It was basically about advances in farming beyond subsistence that enabled populations to diversify into other activities (eg industry and trade). Apparently there are only six fully domesticated animal breeds – bred from species most suited to temperate climates and/or domestication (eg cattle but not wilderbeest, or horses but not zebras). This, coupled with the location of useful natural resources (ores etc), determined the extent and type of ‘civilised’ populations. For example, colonial empires focused on those parts of the world that could be exploited for either minerals or specific foods (sugar, tobacco etc). Those parts of the world which couldn’t or weren’t worth exploiting remained in the Stone Age, some even to this day. Many areas had few natural resources that provided a catalyst for development or colonisation – be it bronze, iron etc, or climatic conditions suitable for high yielding production of grain. Indeed, all too often the primary resource was man power, hence the slave trade for sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations. It’s very complex with countless permutations, but sort of explains why parts of Africa, in particular, remain underdeveloped and vulnerable to famine and disease – population levels are no longer determined by purely natural means, nor by inter tribal wars, but more by conditions and laws imposed by former colonial powers.

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