Archive for July, 2009

Antibiotics save my leg

Friday, July 31st, 2009

For all the criticism of the scientific method and Big Pharma, antibiotics is truly one of its great discoveries. The flu pandemic of 1918 claimed nearly seventy million lives because there were no antibiotics to deal with the complications arising from Spanish flu. This week I got a lesson in the efficacy of modern medicine.

A couple of weeks ago I sat outside a hotel enjoying a coffee and the sunshine during a business meeting. It was an informal affair and I was wearing shorts. The next morning my wife asked me if I had been stabbed in the night for on the back of my thigh was a wound the size of a dinner plate. On closer inspection it turned out to be a reaction to an insect bite but it was a fierce reaction and the skin was blood red. I felt no discomfort and so decided against seeing a doctor. The reaction persisted for the next few days with the skin going through various colour changes but still with no discomfort apart from the odd itch.

On the tenth day I was woken up in the night with a painful irritation. The wound was now giving me massive discomfort. In the morning light I could see, with the aid of a mirror, that the skin was inflamed and blood red again. As soon as the local walk in centre was open I attended it and saw a doctor. He took one look at it and declared it was infected and prescribed antibiotics. At the start of the course I could envisage how my leg could easily develop an escalating infection. The wound was exquisitely painful to touch and had become swollen. It was easy to imagine gangrene setting in or septicaemia, followed by an amputation or death. That was the reality of a simple insect bite before the advent of antibiotics.

Within 36 hours of taking the medication the pain had subsided to a sensation of having an overly hot water bottle adjacent to my skin. But then the infection fought back and spread further around the original wound which now had a ring of blisters along its boundary. Another visit to the walk in centre produced a nurse this time who burst the marble sized blisters and dressed the wound. A biro line was drawn around the new infected area (which I could now see without the aid of a mirror) and the nurse reassured me that the antibiotics took 48 hours to kick in properly.

A couple of days after this and the swelling had gone down significantly.

Today is the penultimate day of the antibiotic course and the infection appears to be beaten. Phew. Now I know why MRSA is so feared inside hospitals.

The acquisition of wealth goes against nature

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

I boiled an egg. I put the egg into a container of cold water. After several minutes I removed the egg from the container and noticed how warm the water had become in the container. The egg had transferred its abundant energy into the warmed water. The greater energy was given freely to the lesser energy. Nature demands that things be in equilibrium, in balance.

Capitalism is the opposite of this principle. Capitalism encourages accretion; the rich get richer as the poor get poorer. There is no balance, no giving of the abundant to the bereft. We KNOW inequality is wrong. Now I know why. It is unnatural.

It has been said that life is just nature’s way of speeding up the equilibrium of energy throughout the universe.

I boiled an egg. From that I got the cosmic order of natural law.

Sometimes I wonder where these thoughts come from.

A joke in code

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

This is a really clever joke I spotted in someone’s sign off on a comments page;

There are 10 types of people, those who understand binary and those who don’t.

Paul Hawken

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Boy, this is good stuff. If Paul Hawken can speak as well as he writes, he might actually get people to start saving the world.

History is bunk*

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell gave a talk in Liverpool recently where he postulated that the financial crisis was the result of, what he calls, expert over confidence. He calls it that where others would simply call it ‘greed’. The former sounds more interesting though and you could probably squeeze a book out of the idea.

Similarly, I could postulate that the financial crisis was the death roll of capitalism or was analogous to a population collapse in evolutionary terms. The fact is, post event, you can apply practically any fancy interpretation you want to that event. It’s a game for intellectuals who have nothing better to do. If they could come up with an accurate divination prior to an event, then I would be impressed (although they would have to have a hit rate that was significantly above that of chance) but they can’t because “nobody knows anything” (the most profound piece of writing William Goldman ever came up with).

One of the things I did learn from my school history teacher was this; it doesn’t matter what actually happened, it’s what people believe happened that is important. The other thing he said was, “History is written by the victors”. So if you’ve won a war – however that came about – and you write about your victory, what sort of language would you employ?

“It was dumb luck that I marched my men in the right direction.”

Or would you try and make yourself look a lot  cleverer? Alexander the Great probably started out as Alexander the OK but progressively promoted himself with each new ‘victory’ – Alexander the Impressive, Alexander the Good etc. Of course, in some parts of the world, untouched by his influence, he is known as Alexander the Twat.

If you follow this argument through, it makes all history suspect. At the very worst it is lies and at the very best it is biased. I maintain my position as a cynical empiricist.

*History tells us Henry Ford said this.

So now what?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

We are currently having some building work done on the house and have reconfigured a couple of the bedrooms. It was fun seeing the project come together but by far the biggest buzz was from envisioning the potential of the rooms. I paced the bedroom areas and imagined where the furniture would go and therefore where the electrical sockets should be placed. It then occurred to me to move my home office into a different room. The ideas began to expand into larger and larger scenarios.

We have lived in the house for ten years now and this is the only bit of structural work we have undertaken. During those ten years we got used to the house; it was just a place to camp and leave our stuff. Now, it has become an interesting puzzle to solve once again (I remember when we first moved in it was fun deciding who and what would go where).

There is a statistic somewhere which shows that people move house on average every seven years. I can see why this is. After seven years, any novelty of a new house, location, job etc. has worn off and people subconsciously ask themselves, “So now what?” Their answer is to move house and start the process over again.

I suspect this restlessness is inculcated into us by a consumerist society. We buy the latest blu-ray player and watch television in high definition. Once the novelty has worn off and we realise that the content of television is still the same old crap, no matter how high the definition is, we return to the silent, nagging question – so now what?

This is why economic growth is vital to the consumerist model. Without it, it forces a re-evaluation of the question ’so now what?’ because implicit in the lack of economic growth is the understanding that the ‘what’ can only be less than what it used to be. If you think about it, this nagging restlessness is just like any other addictive drug; we get a high of novelty which quickly wears off and so we need another dose just to maintain a tolerance of the unsatisfactory life we have fashioned for ourselves.

Instead of asking, “So now what?”, perhaps we could ask, “So now where?” and concern ourselves with the only question worth considering – how should we live?

One of the saddest things I can remember

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

It was the first day of a new school year. In my case, it was to be my final year at Secondary school so I walked around the playground with the air of someone who knew his way around the minefield of school hierarchies and gang territories. There was no tradition of initiation rites for the new intake at this school although for one particular boy that day it might have been better that there were; it might have been less cruel.

The school was multi cultural and had a large Asian contingent. A lot of the new students conformed to this demographic and I could see some nervous brown faces furtively scanning the playground with the same apprehension as a lone Wildebeest lost in the savannah looking for a fellow member of its herd. Some lucky starters had friends that they could share their excitement and apprehension with and they explored the playground complex like little gangs of hyenas.

Then, like a vulture in the sky, a signal went out. It was one of those inaudible, unseen signals that every child has an antenna for and instantly recognises. Its communication is simple, it says ’something is happening’ and heads began to turn in the direction of the commotion. I could see the older kids moving inexorably as one towards the source of the attraction like iron filings being pulled by a giant magnet.  Even the new kids were instinctively sucked into the magnetic field, their curiosity easily overcoming their fear.

The stream of bodies flowed around a corner and I too fell into its current. When I rounded the corner I could see a circle of jeering people surrounding a new Asian boy. He was immaculately dressed in his brand new school uniform. A shiny leather satchel, pristine in its chestnut glow, hung lightly from his little shoulder. These few clues revealed much about him and his family; the proud, aspirational parents prepared to work hard and sacrifice their lives for their child because they knew education was the best investment for a brighter future. All they asked for was a chance…a chance to earn a fair share of the good life in this strange country…

The boy was isolated, frightened, bewildered. I moved closer into the circle, using my seniority to ford the pool of humanity. I got to the edge of the circle and my eyes followed the direction of the accusatory fingers of the braying mob. Then I saw it. I saw the cause of such cruel hilarity; on the breast pocket of his black blazer was the school crest, carefully and lovingly sown on by the hand of his dutiful mother in perfect stitching. The cloth badge was brand new and vibrant in its brilliant colours. … but upside down.

The funniest thing I can remember

Monday, July 6th, 2009

This was an incident which happened over thirty years ago. Every so often I replay the scene in my head and without fail it produces a dopamine rush of unbridled laughter which lasts for several minutes. I am always astonished at how the memory still has the power to provoke fresh waves of champagne giggles. Maybe you had to be there. Let’s see.

I was an art student on a foundation year. The course demanded that we experience as many crafts as possible including pottery and textiles. The group of friends I had made were hard core performance and fine art wannabe’s and so such activities held little interest for us.

Towards the end of the year we had a regular textile class. The stuttering British summer had kicked in and produced a stultifying day of airless suffocation. We were all gathered around a large table listening to the lecturer drone on about inks. This was a trial. We were aware of the soporific nature of this particular lecturer and in the heat of the day a few of us were close to nodding off.

The lecturer was a dour Scotsman. He was tall and gaunt with a sing-song accent which belied his doom laden nature. Every molecule of humour had been squeezed out of his body by the pernicious fingers of fate. Although we knew his wife had recently died of cancer we were unaware of any other tragedies which had befallen him but they must have been many going by his constant expression of despair.

I was standing directly opposite the lecturer and my mischievous friend Peter was standing immediately to his left. We occasionally rolled our eyes heavenward to each other in acknowledgement of the boredom. The lecturer, in his lilting voice, was reaching a climax in his deliberations about the ink…

“So, you mix the ink to the right constituency.”

It was a simple mistake, easily done. No-one seemed to notice but I immediately shot a look to Peter who locked his widening eyes with mine and acknowledged the error with a swift leap of his eyebrows like two racing caterpillars clearing a hurdle simultaneously.

This simple little gesture contained in such a hot and fetid atmosphere had an electrifying effect on me. The boredom was too much, the distraction too great and I inwardly cavorted with the image in an orgy of clowning. My mirth was evident to Peter who’s eyes widened even more as the contagion of humour infected him. Seeing his face attempting to resist the rictus of laughter created a feedback loop of humour in me and I had to feign a bodily irritation to disguise my mirth. I closed my watering eyes and hunched forward onto the table. Such was the effort in trying to control these huge comic forces that my body rocked gently up and down.

When I had deemed a sufficient amount of time had elapsed for the spasm to have abated and I was in control of my body once more I raised my head and stared again at Peter. This was a mistake. His face was a mask of anguish. I could see pleasure and pain sweeping across his face like flitting shadows as he attempted to control his own paroxysm of suppressed laughter. My own resolve quickly broke at this ridiculous sight and a tightly grimaced smile carved itself onto my swelling face. Our eyes locked in a terrified moment of barely suppressed hysteria. The tension was becoming unbearable. A fly buzzed in the hot, still air somewhere above us.

And at exactly that moment, the lecturer, wishing to impart a final important message, searched for someone to make eye contact with so that he could drive the point home. As Peter was standing right next to him, he proved to be the sensible choice and the lecturer directed his voice at him. It was obvious to Peter that the lecturer had turned towards him and that social etiquette demanded that he return the gaze. Being the well mannered middle class youth that he was, he obliged.

The rest of the group had started to sense that something unusual was hovering within their midst, an ectoplasm of some kind which needed a rational explanation, and they suddenly became more alert like a flock of birds simultaneously crouching in readiness for take-off to some, as yet, unseen danger.

When the lecturer spoke to Peter, he didn’t pause in his dialogue but I could see that a part of his mind had become fascinated with what was happening in front of him: ‘it looks like Peter’, he seemed to be thinking, ‘but his face seems to be on the verge of metamorphosing into something else – a moth perhaps’.

Peter was suppressing a volcano inside of him and little muscle tremors played about his face. The lecturer seemed confused and intrigued by the sight and like a man watching the shaking of a boiler next to him, he was totally unaware of the danger he was in. Of course, Peter was hoping that the lecturer would conclude his important point and look away so that he could release some of the pressure in a discreet and inoffensive way but the more he hoped, the more disfigured his face became and the more intrigued the lecturer became and thus the longer he continued to speak to Peter. They were locked in a death embrace.

Horrified, I looked on, my own mirth forgotten with this new fascinating development. Eventually Peter’s eyes could bulge no more and his breathing appeared to have stopped.

The volcano blew spectacularly and whilst the lecturer was staring into his face not two feet away, Peter let out this sudden, violent, unstoppable explosion of hysterical laughter. It was a kind of laugh I have not heard since. It was mad. It was the laughter of someone who had crossed the line of human decency. It was the laughter of someone who didn’t care anymore.

It must have lasted for just two seconds but it was enough to release the intense pressure and just as suddenly, Peter’s expression returned to normal. Everyone around the table remained in their crouched flight position now completely unsure as to what was happening. The pregnant silence was only broken by the lecturer who, without missing a beat, continued with his explanation of ink. His expression was now one of complete mystification as if he had resigned himself to the fact that the workings of humanity would forever be beyond his comprehension. He turned his face away from Peter’s and continued to talk to the group as if nothing had happened. Everyone else in the group looked at each other with a disbelieving expression of, did that really happen?

Yes, it did.

Work harder, you dancing monkeys!

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

As we ‘progress’ in our wobbling civilisation, there seems to be less and less leisure time. Which seems odd. Surely the idea of progress is that it enables us to do more of the things that increase our well-being (I was going to write what those things were and I suddenly realised that I didn’t really know! Perhaps another post is required to list them).

Well, more leisure time is surely one. Okay we don’t have children working in factories for 12 or 14 hours a day or whatever insane time period it was, but if you exclude the Victorian vision of hell you will probably find that prior to that time, periods of leisure was more common than today.

This year has seen a massive dip for me financially but counterbalancing this, I have had more time to indulge my creative interests and also to just do nothing and reflect on how things are done in society (usually very badly when you look closely).

Being busy has its own unconscious satisfaction; you can be busy digging out earthquake survivors or trafficking human beings into the sex trade, it doesn’t matter, being busy prevents reflection and philosophising. You get on with the job and if you’re making money as well, even better.

The problem is that we have been brainwashed to value only financial success. The idea is that once you have earned the money, you spend it in your leisure time. But of course all the things that are sold to us as ‘leisure activities’ require money. The more desirable an activity seems, the more it costs. The result is the hamster paradox; the faster we try to climb the ladder to more desirable leisure activities, the harder we have to work.

The truth is, in the developed world, we need only a fraction of the material things we aspire to. If people dispensed with the exorbitant leisure activities peddled to them by amoral companies – the alcohol, the holidays, the restaurants – they could live off a fraction of their salaries and work for only a couple of days a week.

Now get back to work you monkeys and don’t reflect on what’s been written here.