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Unlatch the door and scratch holes in the night

Unlatch the door and scratch holes in the night.

On becoming human

Some of life’s pleasures

Being able to go outside.

Not having a spare second in which to look at a book, never mind hours in which to contemplate the futility of existence.

Rain.

Normal looking wee.

Being able to walk around without being chaperoned by a saline drip.

Not having cannulas stuck in my arm as though I’m being cyber-converted.

Not having to wear a name tag and barcode.

Being hungry! Oh God, being hungry again!

Not having to read every page of every magazine I can find and do a book of extra-hard sudokus because there is literally nothing else to do.

Not having to ask a nurse to help put my stockings on.

Not having them be the “compression” type…

My belly not looking like the planet Venus.

Typing, rather than scribbling in a notebook.

Kissing.

And best of all, being at home with my family.

Moves like Jagger

So anyway, I got jaundice, and went into hospital, and just a week later I’m out again, or most of me is – my gall bladder remains behind as a gift to science. The surgeon who extracted it described it as “nasty” and said “the stones were mobile”. I’ve been the proud recipient of a laparoscopic cholecystectomy and an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography and despite the fact that I came round before the latter was quite finished (they only give you a light anaesthetic – “most people don’t remember much afterwards,” the charming doctor assured me, unfortunately I wasn’t one of them) — despite all that, the worst thing was the MRI scan. I say this partly because I’d just finished reading “Before I Go to Sleep” by S J Watson (did I mention that I had time on my hands?) which includes a scene in which the heroine has a scan that Mr Watson manages to make sound quite horrific, and partly because I’m more claustrophobic than I thought I was, and you have to lie for about half an hour inside a machine that makes incredibly loud noises, like being stuck inside a computer game from the 1980s, or some sort of conceptual art thingy.

What I was going to say was that the Public Health Service is incredible. I’ve always known this, of course, and routinely thank my lucky stars (actually I have a lucky Bootes Void, but you know what I mean) that I was born in the Western world in the 20th century. But having been through it (the Public Health Service) I now appreciate this even more, and the magnificent people who work in it.

What was the greatest development of the 20th century? The car? TV? Penicillin? Hauling a few rocks back from the Moon, or blowing up whole cities with a single bomb? I reckon a strong contender has to be the creation of the National Health Service in the UK in 1948. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are all very well, but they don’t get you very far if you haven’t got your health. In fact the first of these, “life,” is just a tad dependent on you being healthy, making it a bit of a surprise the Americans didn’t get there first (and still haven’t been dragged, kicking and screaming, into 1948 even now, as far as I know). Yet health should be a fundamental human right. There are thousands or even millions of needless deaths around the world, many of them children, that could so easily be prevented with a tiny fraction of a percent of the money spent on, say, the “War on Terror”. (And don’t say that would make the population problem worse, because in every country that has decent education, healthcare, rights for women and so on the populations always level off.)

 

We have the technology

Do we or what? I’ve had miniature cameras and whatnots whizzing around inside me, all that was missing were Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasence (which is odd, I’ve always suspected someone like Raquel was inside me, struggling to get out). It was one week from my contracting jaundice to being home again with a clean bill of health, a prescription for paracetamol and an injunction against heavy lifting. Fifty years ago, I’d have needed major surgery to fix a blocked bile duct, and a century ago, the cure might easily have killed me.

How SF is that?! And that’s just routine! How long before we start having cosmetic neurosurgery, or adapting ourselves to live under the sea?

So here we are, living in the future. How great would it be if we could share that future with the entire world? 1948 saw a genuine giant leap for mankind, one in which we actually tried to be nicer to each other. So it didn’t pan out as well as it might have, perhaps because later governments saw the NHS as the first place to make cuts. I think that tells you all you need to know about our glorious leaders, by the way. They’re all right, Jack, is all there is to it. I wouldn’t vote for anyone I thought might cut funding to health services or otherwise disrupt them. Health should be a universal human right, not just for those lucky enough to be born into a particular family or country or with the right connections or enough money.

My treatment was thanks to the New Zealand Ministry of Health, and I haven’t paid a bean for it except through my taxes.

I don’t often have the urge to deface public property…

…but a billboard had appeared on my route to work: I don’t know what it’s advertising, but it says “Think you’re as fast as an All Black?” and it has an electronic board attached which scrolls up names and times. The first one appeared to be “JUDITH O 42.07″ (I may have misread that, I wouldn’t have thought there were many All Blacks called Judith, but I couldn’t be bothered to wait to see it again) and towards the end is someone whose time is 1.34. (I don’t remember it mentioning whether these are measured in seconds, minutes, hours or kalpas.) But anyway, I felt just vaguely insulted by the assumption that everyone in the country is aspiring to be a jock (even though most of the population of Auckland who aren’t being hauled around by a ton of metal are either jogging or cycling) and my nerdy little heart was filled with a desire to get hold of a spray can (and a ladder) and strike a blow for the freedom to come out of the closet and admit to my shameful little secret: I have a brain, and I’m not afraid to use it.

I thought perhaps something like this might get the message across.

As fast? Hell, I can’t imagine any of those jokers doing the Times crossword in less than 45 minutes, never mind 15!”

Having been past again, I have now noticed that the times, although they don’t specify what they’re measured in (or even that they are times) are in the format 1:23:45 which I imagine is hours, minutes and seconds. And the ad is for some sort of “sports drink”, presumably roughly the same as you’d get if you mixed filtered water with a few vitamins. So there you go.

He’s back!

The Governator

While his first post-politics project is a TV cartoon series for kids called The Governator, Schwarzenegger told a press conference at the MipTV conference in Cannes today that the show will spawn comic books, digital content and ultimately a 3D movie.

The show is loosely based on Schwarzenegger’s recent political career, with an animated post-governor Arnie fighting crime and natural disasters while trying to “make it home for dinner every night”. (cont’d…)

Hmm…I suppose fiction and reality are becoming increasingly blurred for the average American.

I guess it helps the ruling elite get away with this sort of thing:

We caused a recession? Trebles all round!

Bankers aren’t known for being particularly demonstrative, but when the head of the Independent Community Banks of America addressed its convention in San Diego last week, he sounded more like a fire-and-brimstone preacher than a buttoned-down financier.

But the evil that ICBA President Cam Fine sermonized about was not demon rum or the corrupting influence of billiard parlors.

Instead, he railed against the excesses at the nation’s biggest banks, which are emerging from the Great Recession larger than ever, with gold-plated pay packages and — so far at least — little threat of prosecution over actions that contributed to the global financial shutdown. (cont’d…)

Rule by the (top) people, of the (top) people, for the (top) people!

The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow. (cont’d…)

But tell that to the kids of 1955, and they wouldn’t believe you!

Dr. Brown: Then tell me, ‘Future Boy’, who’s President in the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who’s VICE-President? Jerry Lewis?

And I think to myself…

Ah, nothing like a leaf through the pages of “Scientific American” to restore my faith in the intelligence of the human race. At least some people aren’t in denial about the dangers to the planet, engaged in blowing one another up, acting out power fantasies, selling their souls for baubles, or otherwise displaying the childish side of humanity. Reading about how an amateur space explorer can put a satellite in orbit for less than $10,000, how the oceans could still feed the world, how far we’ve come in understanding our genetic code in the decade since it was first sequenced, how paralysed people will be able to control machines with their minds (and a bit further down the track, may be cured), how we now know which parts of our brains light up when we fall in love, and why beer batter makes better fish and chips…

…maybe the human race will make it through the next few decades after all.

Some like it hot

Note: Due to my naïveté, I inadvertently linked a previous version of this post to a prohibited website (something to do with advertising, I think – I was just after a pretty picture). This was unintentional, but… well, I’ve deleted the original post, and am re-posting a new version, only using links that I hope are trustworthy. This is rather a shame, since one of the few comments I’ve had will have disappeared with it, so, my apologies to surfsurfer103@hotmail.com, who kindly pointed out that I’d reversed polarity half way through the discussion (the reason why one might easily do this inadvertently are now made a lot clearer in the post, by the way).

______________________________________________________________________

A little while ago, a friend of mine (with whom I have since agreed to differ on certain subjects) brought my attention to an article. He didn’t provide a link to the original article (I wonder why not?) but several versions can be found on the web.

It starts:

Antarctic Sea Ice for November 2009 Higher Than 1979

Contrary to media reports Antarctic sea ice continues to expand. Ice totals for November 2009 are significantly higher than 1979 when measurements began. The main stream media concentrates on a couple of small areas of the Antarctic in order to scare you in to believing that Antarctica is melting, when in fact its gaining ice.

From the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado

Since measurements began in 1979 antarctic sea ice has continued to expand, contrary to what the news media would have you believe. We bring this information to you month after month and still there is no sign of the main stream media picking up on the story. They continue to discuss the relatively small areas of the Western Antarctic Peninsula that are melting due to changes in ocean currents.

The article goes on to lambast the “main stream media” (sic), Al Gore and “certain segments” of the scientific community for perpetrating a hoax on the public. It bases what it says on a reputable source – the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado (NSIDC). I thought perhaps I should check whether they agreed with the version of events described above.

Looking at their website, however, revealed a rather different take on the matter. This is a complex subject, and the evidence is open to various interpretations – nevertheless, after reading what the NSIDC had to say, it became clear that the author of the original article had highlighted a few facts that appeared to support his viewpoint, and ignored a huge mass that didn’t (which is a bit ironic, considering that he was discussing icebergs… :) )

Here, as briefly as I can make them, are a few quotes from the NSIDC that summarise their views. (I start with the Arctic rather than the Antarctic, for reasons that will become clear shortly).

Is Arctic sea ice really declining?

Yes, the data show that Arctic sea ice really is in a state of ongoing decline. The reason we know this is because satellites offer us a long-term record. As of September 2007, the September rate of sea ice decline since 1979 was approximately -10 percent per decade, or 72,000 square kilometers (28,000 square miles) per year.

Why don’t I hear much about Antarctic sea ice?

Unlike Arctic sea ice, Antarctic sea ice disappears almost completely during the summer, and has since scientists have studied it. In other words, Antarctic sea ice has very little multiyear ice, and few areas are covered with sea ice year-round. This means that total ice extent tends to be more variable. In contrast, satellite records and pre-satellite records indicate that the Arctic has not been free of summertime sea ice for at least 5,500 years and possibly for 125,000 years.

Moreover, Antarctic sea ice extent is less confined by land masses, and is more easily affected by storms and winds (i.e., spread out or compacted). This also leads to more variability in sea ice extent. While most months of the year show a weak trend towards ice increase over the satellite monitoring period, the variability between years is high. For example the extent for the month of March, when the minimum typically occurs, has swings of -20 to +30 percent in recent years relative to the long-term mean. The satellite-record lowest minimum year was 2006; the highest minimum was 2008; and in 2006 the record winter maximum, up to that time, was also observed.

The one regional exception is the area just west of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Sea. Here a gradual climate trend towards increasing northwesterly winds and warmer temperatures has led to a significant loss of sea ice cover (approximately 20 percent) over the past 30 years. Major ice shelf retreats on both sides of the Peninsula have occurred in recent decades along with the loss of sea ice.

Climate model projections of Antarctic sea ice extent are in reasonable agreement with the observations to date. The dominant change in the climate pattern of Antarctica has been a gradual increase in the westerly circumpolar winds. Models suggest that both the loss of ozone (the ozone hole that occurs in September/October every year) and increases in greenhouse gases lead to an increase in this climate pattern.

Scientists monitor both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, but Arctic sea ice is more significant to understanding global climate because much more Arctic ice remains through the summer months, reflecting sunlight and cooling the planet. Sea ice near the Antarctic Peninsula, south of the tip of South America, has recently experienced a significant decline. The rest of Antarctica has experienced a small increase in Antarctic sea ice.

Antarctica and the Arctic are reacting differently to climate change partly because of geographical differences. Antarctica is a continent surrounded by water, while the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land. Wind and ocean currents around Antarctica isolate the continent from global weather patterns, keeping it cold. In contrast, the Arctic Ocean is intimately linked with the climate systems around it, making it more sensitive to changes in climate.

My added emphasis. For more information, see All About Sea Ice: Arctic vs. Antarctic and the State of the Cryosphere: Sea Ice. To see data on Antarctic sea ice, see the Sea Ice Index.

Although this is clearly a complicated subject with many ifs, buts and uncertainties, the overall message from the NSIDC is fairly clear:

  • Arctic sea ice is declining
  • Antarctic sea ice isn’t, on the whole, either declining or increasing
  • Due to geographical differences, Arctic sea ice is a far more important indicator of climate change than Antarctic sea ice.

Or, to summarise the summary: the NSIDC has plenty of evidence that climate change is happening, and the original article deliberately misrepresented the facts on the NSIDC website to support its own agenda.

What really intrigues me is what on Earth anyone hopes to gain by taking facts like these and distorting them to show that something that almost certainly is happening, isn’t – especially when you consider that this is such a serious matter that ignoring it could lead to global devastation and death on an unthinkable scale? Do they have some cunning, Bond-villain type plan? Are they, perhaps, intending to be the only people left alive in their underground lair once the sea has risen 70 metres and the atmosphere is a combustible mix of methane and oxygen? Or do they think climate change may not get too bad in their lifetime, and just not care about anybody else (including their children, if they have any) – so they aren’t going to put themselves out to make any preparations for it, and resent anyone else doing so? Do they hate the fact that their lives may be affected by forces outside their control, or resent the fact that scientists know more than they do? Or is it simply a belief that somehow, if we all keep our heads down and don’t tempt fate by discussing Things Mankind Was Not Meant to Tamper With, everything will miraculously turn out for the best?

What is really surprising is that the people with a vested interest in the status quo aren’t doing more to maintain it. The evidence has been in for a while: we’re quite clearly heading for a resource crunch and an environmental crisis. If I wanted to make sure that my 7 mansions weren’t about to be besieged by rampaging mobs and that my Lear jet could be kept fuelled for a quick getaway, I’d be doing my best to find a solution now, while we still have a chance.

What’s the alternative – live on another planet, or underground? As I may have already mentioned, the UK government recently put together a bank rescue package totalling some £500 billion – however the banks are going to be of no use whatsoever if society breaks down, because you can’t eat money. So a far better use for at least some of that money might have been urgent research into carbon sequestration, alternative power sources, and how to restructure society so that we will have some chance of coping with what Mother Nature has in store for us.

After all, if we screw up now, the chances of another civilisation rising to our current heights is unlikely: future societies won’t have readily available resources to give them a kick-start, since we are in the process of squandering them. We have one chance at becoming a type one civilisation on the Kardashev scale, of continuing the technological ascent that began when our ancestors learned to chip flints and to keep fires alight through the Ice Age winters. If we fail, we’ll almost certainly never have the chance again; our descendants will return to lives of superstition, slavery, subsistence and violence, in which gods bestride the skies and demons haunt the darkness. But this time, with no possibility of a second Industrial Revolution, it will last forever – or at least until some catastrophe renders our descendants extinct.

Which seems rather a high price to pay for keeping some rich folk in champagne for a few more years, and allowing our fates to be determined by a few people who are unable to bear too much reality.

U.K. Government creating Brave New World

Keeping the deltas and epsilons down

The UK government is, apparently, creating a society in which parts of the population are brought up regularly taking behaviour-modifying drugs. They are doing this by implementing so-called “health reforms” – cutting health funding to local councils, which has the knock-on effect that drugs are prescribed to young children, presumably especially in lower and lower middle class areas where both parents are likely to have to work, and to be unable to afford childcare.

Kendall said prescriptions could continue to rise due to impending health cuts. “It’s a false economy … all the evidence says that parent training courses combined with partnership working with schools is what works, but these programmes are being cut by local councils.”

Medical experts in the West Midlands say over-prescription continues to be a problem. “This whole area needs public scrutiny – there has to be some kind of review,” said the educational psychologist who oversaw the cases but did not want to be named. “Handing out strong psychotropic drugs to children should be a last resort, but they’re being handed out like sweets.”

This is a country that could afford to pay a bank rescue package totalling some £500 billion in 2008. That’s a bailout for the financial sector, a part of society that produces nothing whatsoever, and only exists in order to make people who are already obscenely rich even more so, at the expense of the people who actually do some useful work. Like health care workers and parents — apparently as far as our fat-cat rulers are concerned they can go hang in the wonderful Brave New World under the Dictatorship of Capital.

They're watching your every move

Why we need Wikileaks

To stop this sort of thing remaining “business as usual”.

Eighteen months before Japan’s radiation crisis, U.S. diplomats had lambasted the safety chief of the world’s atomic watchdog for incompetence, especially when it came to the nuclear power industry in his homeland, Japan.Cables sent from the U.S. embassy in Vienna to Washington, which were obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by Reuters, singled out Tomihiro Taniuchi, until last year head of safety and security at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“For the past 10 years, the department has suffered tremendously because of (deputy director general) Taniguchi’s weak management and leadership skills,” said one dispatch on Dec. 1, 2009.

“Taniguchi has been a weak manager and advocate, particularly with respect to confronting Japan’s own safety practices, and he is a particular disappointment to the United States for his unloved-step-child treatment of the Office of Nuclear Security,” said another, which was sent on July 7, 2009.

As it says here,

An official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in December 2008 that safety rules were out of date and strong earthquakes would pose a “serious problem” for nuclear power stations.

The Japanese government pledged to upgrade safety at all of its nuclear plants, but will now face inevitable questions over whether it did enough.

While it responded to the warnings by building an emergency response centre at the Fukushima plant, it was only designed to withstand magnitude 7.0 tremors. Friday’s devastating earthquake was a magnitude 9.0 shock.

Please note that earthquakes don’t scale up linearly; a magnitude 9 quake releases a thousand times as much energy as a magnitude 7. So the nuclear plant was in effect 0.1% prepared. A fact that the World should know (thank you, Wikileaks).

While I’m on the subject…

I must admit it’s more than likely that Julian Assange has a rampant ego; but that doesn’t detract one whit from the good that Wikileaks has done. Obviously there are many shades of grey involved, as in so many things – but I do think that the principle of freedom of the press (and other media) is generally sound, and that Assange and others like him are, on the whole, doing a good thing to further transparency of government. Historically there have been trends for secrecy and centralised power to be reduced, and I believe that this has come about mainly as a result of improvements in communications technology. When it took several weeks for a message to get across Europe, there was great scope for dictatorship and the repression of freedom – but when news can travel around the world in 1/23rd of a second, there is far less scope for them, and so I (generally) welcome anything that reduces that scope even further.

Given that the western democracies seem to be largely controlled by vested interests, often the same ones that are wrecking the planet, and seeing that there is a war being carried out by the rich against the middle and working classes that is starting to make 1984 look quite prophetic (cf the obscene disparities in wealth in most of the First World), I think we need organisations like Wikileaks. And if it requires a person with a massive ego to start the ball rolling, then wheel him on.

There is an evolutionary reason for the existence of sociopaths, after all: they come in very handy when there is a battle to be fought.

Pyramid schemes

In case you’re wondering why we aren’t doing more to save the world from going down the tubes, the answer is at least partly due to the extreme, and obscene, division of wealth. It would take some sort of concerted effort to save the world, and some people would rather keep things the way they are.

“Civilization is an experiment, a very recent way of life in the human career, and it has a habit of walking into what I am calling progress traps. A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea; but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea. While prevention might have been easy, a cure may be impossible: a city isn’t easily moved. This human inability to foresee — or to watch out for — long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed, and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the social pyramid. The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.”

Although even the people at the “top” of the social pyramid should beware, since…

“The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one’s interest. It is a suicide machine.”

(Both quotes are from Ronald Wright’s book “A Short History of Progress.”)

Whatever you do, Americans, don’t speak up against repression

PJ Crowley, the spokesman for the US state department (which somewhat hypocritically gave Wikileaks the brush off but was happy to negotiate with the New York Times over the recent diplomatic cables leak) has at least partly redeemed his department by speaking up on behalf of Bradley Manning.

The fact that he had to resign after doing so is of course both incredible and shameful.

The resignation followed Crowley’s remarks to an MIT seminar last week about Manning’s treatment in military prison.

Crowley had said: “What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the department of defence.”

The remarks forced President Obama to address for the first time the issue of Manning’s handling at Quantico marine base in Virginia. Obama defended the way Manning is being treated, saying he had been reassured by the Pentagon that his confinement was appropriate.

Incredible, too, that that was the first time President Obama had addressed this issue, when it’s a scandal around the world – well, the other 93% of the world. The land of the free, with its guarantee of free speech, seems not to have noticed that, with its division into an elite plus everyone else, its curtailment of basic freedoms, its use of torture and prison camps, and its retainment of that Medieval atrocity, the death penalty, it is rapidly taking on the role of its old Cold War enemy.

Well, OK, PJ Crowley clearly has. As he said,

The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values.

Having to resign for stating what we used to think were the US’s core values…? America really has “lost a little of its greatness.” I blame it on the wallpaper.

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