The Other I

February 25, 2017

What has happened to my America?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 5:00 pm

Image result for taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut

The English

I read with horror and anguish that some mainstream, accredited news media were shut out of the White House press conference yesterday.

It is not that I have not been appalled by the Trump administration’s behavior in relation to immigration, to trade, to climate change, or Trump’s behavior toward those who disagree with him.  I have.

And it’s not that I think America has lived up to its ideals of equality and justice and democracy for all.  It emphatically hasn’t.

But I have never seen an attack on this level against freedom of speech.  It’s what dictators do – take over the press and media.

Nothing has frightened me so profoundly.

It’s not much, but I’ve just taken out a paid subscription to the New York Times, a paper which I always thought of as rather center of the road.  Hardly revolutionary.  And as British residents, we pay for our BBC license fee.  Way too truthful for Trump as well.  My appreciation for them also just went up a notch.  And of course there was no room at the news conference either for the Huffington Post or Politico or CNN.  All way way too revolutionary for the likes of Trump & Co.


November 9, 2016

umpty Trumpty

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 4:46 pm
Well, “shock” is the word contained in almost every headline I’ve read since I got up this morning, barely ten minutes before Trump’s presidency and congressional majorities were confirmed beyond doubt.  Here in Britain, the response reminded me that several hundred thousand people signed a petition about a year ago asking Parliament to forbid Trump entrance to the UK on the grounds of his attitudes toward Muslims.  On the other hand, the Brexit vote here to withdraw from the European Union had a lot in common with the attitudes expressed by the Trump campaign.
I saw an interview yesterday with a highly reputable British pollster who said he wasn’t convinced by the polls predicting a Clinton win.  He said he thought there very well may be a meaningful number of people – including registered Democrats – who would not admit publicly that they were supporting Trump but who could very well swing the vote.  That sounded like a rather terrifying possibility to me, and so this morning when the results were clear, I was more shocked than surprised.
What I wonder now though is whether even those who feel they have been disenfranchised by the wave of immigrants coming into the States will actually be any better off as the result of the policies Trump & his Republican congress will implement.  Same question we are asking over here about those people who voted for Brexit on the grounds that immigration should be limited.
The thought that Trump will now be the deciding factor on the next Supreme Court judges – including replacing Scalia as soon as he gets into office – is scary as well.
Just read an article arguing that what the Trump voters really want is to re-establish White supremacy.  How strong that kind of racism is compared to a realistic sense of economic disenfranchisement by workers displaced by either migrant workers or international trade, I don’t know.  I suppose one might ask a similar question about British colonial rule.  Both US and UK governments, in my view, have under-estimated the resentment and done too little to solve very real problems of joblessness and the increasing gulf between the 2% and the shrinking middle class and stunted social mobility.  It’s not what Americans have been taught to believe is right for a country where hard work is promised to reap rewards.
My only (small) hope is that reality may force Trump to modify some of his worst promises and prejudices.  In any case, his election will certainly change attitudes of nations toward the U.S.  I remember back in 1969 an NYU professor  of political science said that China’s power lay partly in the fact that other countries simply did not know what to expect.  That is now true of the U.S.

September 26, 2016

Feeding the hungry

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 3:31 pm

Before reading the rest of this post, you might find it as interesting as I did to make a guess at percentage of the world population you would estimate are undernourished in the world today.

To put that estimate in context, here are a few more relevant facts:

  • in 1945 at the end of two world wars, the global population was 2 billion, 50% of whom the Food & Agriculture Association of the United Nation estimates were undernourished;  that’s about half a billion people
  • in the 60 years since then, the world population has swelled to 7.4 billion, an increase of the human population never seen in the history of our species

I was astonished to read that today, the World Health Organization estimates that about 11% of the human population is malnourished.  That’s a painful 8 million people.  But somehow, even with a burgeoning increase in the human population, the percentage of malnourished has dropped in 60 years from 50% to 11%.  Instead of more than 3 1/2 billion starving people today, the problem has shrunk dramatically.

How did it happen?

Do you want to make another guess?

That’s the subject of my next post.


September 21, 2016

The danger of the Good Old Days

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 7:54 pm

As a cognitive psychologist, I have long known about the research showing that as we age, we tend to cleanse the past of unpleasant memories, leaving us with a view of the past that is actually better than it was.  Knowing this, and besides, being an optimist by nature, I did not expect to fall into this fallacy.

I don’t think of the past as a time to which I would like to return.  But I was rather surprised by the conversation I had with a friend last week in which we both seriously wondered if the world was in a worse state now than it has ever been.  What with our environmental destructiveness, our resistance to immigration, a seeming growth in those who believe that they have a God-given obligation to murder those who disagree with them, and the millions of starving and displaced refugees, most of whom are being refused entrance to countries who see them as dangerous and different, things seem pretty awful.

But I’ve discovered one of the most amazing books I’ve read in perhaps 15 years.  It’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg.

One cannot accuse him of naivete or denial.  He begins with a brief statement of the state of the world:”Terrorism.  ISIS.  War in Syria and Ukraine, Crime, murder, mass shootings.  Famines, floods, pandemics.  Global warming.  Stagnation, poverty, refugees.”

And yet the gist of his book is a strongly research-based argument that things are better now than perhaps they have ever been, and that the most dangerous thing we can do is to pull back from the conditions that have reduced famines, increased life-span, even reduced war.  The book is divided into 10 chapters, examining dramatic improvements in food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, and equality.

Norberg is not suggesting that everything is going to work out.  He is quite aware that we could destroy our environment and ourselves to the point of extinction.  But his argument is that we don’t have to wring our hands in despair.  In the last century we have already made incredible progress.

I think it is worth studying what he is saying, and I am hoping to write a series of posts summarizing what I am learning.

Right now I’m beginning to suspect that The Good Old Days might be far more than a benign fantasy of old age and instead a very dangerous myth.



June 25, 2016

All the King’s horses

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall


Some of the implications of Thursday’s referendum in which Britain voted to withdraw from the European Union are beginning to emerge with some frightening possibilities.  The Brexit leaders are now saying that two of the most convincing arguments for withdrawal are false and the claims should never have been made.  They say that immigration from other EU countries is unlikely to be reduced significantly, and the weekly additional £375 million promised to the National Health Service was “a mistake,” and will not occur.

People living in Cornwall, a region in southwest England which voted for Brexit and which receives significant money from the EU are only now realizing that these funds will no longer be paid.  They say they expect London to pick up the tab.  Airlines  will no longer be permitted to fly between the UK  EU countries without authorization as “foreign planes.”  Tour companies are already raising their prices, there will no longer be automatic health insurance coverage for UK citizens travelling or living in the EU, UK driver’s licences will not be valid on the continent, and of course, UK passports will no longer include automatic admittance into or out of EU countries.  Moody’s has downgraded the UK’s credit rating and Standard & Poors says they are considering a similar downgrade.

Some people are already regretting their Brexit vote, thinking it was a protest vote that would never pass.  More than a million people have signed a petition asking for another referendum.  Even Boris Johnson, the leader of the Brexiteers and probably the next prime minister, is saying that there’s no hurry to extradite ourselves from the EU.  Personally, I tend to give credence to those who suggest that he never expected to win, but was merely positioning himself to run as leader of the Tory party and prime minister in 2020.

Nothing would please me more than to be dead wrong.  But I fear what has been done cannot be undone and that Britain has inflicted a great wound upon itself.

And all the King’s Men

And all the King’s Horses

Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again

November 23, 2015

Should we bomb Syria?

Britain right now is in the grips of a debate over whether to join the coalition bombing IS in Syria.  The Tory government thinks we should.   Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial leader of the opposition Labour party and long-time pacifist is adamantly against it.  He believes that all conflicts should be solved by diplomacy, and initially in the face of a terrorist threat in London similar to the one in Paris, objected to increased armed police on the street.

I think we should bomb Syria IF – and only IF – we address the fundamental issues.  IS, in my view, is like a 2-year old who’s got a hold of a stack of papers he’s lighting with the wood fire in the living room and throwing them around the house.  He has to be stopped immediately – not through negotiation or discussion.  If it involves smacking him – or bombing them, then I would do that.  But just as with the child, you can’t stop there.

We were “successful” in our bombing Iraq, Afghanistan and Libia, but were arrogant idiots in our ignorance about the underlying problems there and ultimately made the fundamental conflicts within those countries worse.  Every one of those countries now have much stronger pockets of IS,  unknown numbers of trained committed jihadists – perhaps as many as several hundred thousand by some estimates – serving as recruitment and training centers for countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.

In addition, IS has money, and a sophisticated plan to convince Muslims, especially in Europe & America, that they are not welcome there, and are seen as inferior.  IS (quite rightly, I think) believe that this is helping them recruit jihadists from those countries, especially among young men who can’t get jobs.  America has just played into their hands with its latest vote on Syrian refugees.
And there is an even deeper problem within middle-eastern countries than feeling thought inferior and unwanted by Western countries.  The Sunnis & Shias are as adamantly opposed to each other as were the Catholics & Protestants during the religious wars for several centuries in Europe.  They believe Allah has given them a mission to destroy the heretics who do not agree with them.  So if we go into those countries, victory will require boots on the ground.  But military presence wouldn’t be enough.  We need a strategy for what happens if/when IS per se is defeated to control the forces that are making it so attractive to so many.  Otherwise, it will simply re-emerge, perhaps under a different name, but no less destructive.
I’ve read some interesting possibilities on that.  But they will require significant skill to implement them.  China, Russia, Europe, Iran, Turkey, the US and others may be united against IS but we are not in agreement about the alternatives either politically or economically.  Without that, what good would bombing do?  “Isis” will just turn up again, under a different name perhaps, but with the same deadly intents and possibly in even greater strength.
Climate change and globalization have both been significant factors in amplifying these conflicts.  Resolving them – even moderating them sufficiently to ensure the survival of the human species – I think is one of the biggest conflicts we have ever faced.  Unfortunately, neither slamming the door nor dropping bombs will resolve them.

July 25, 2015

My existential conundrum

I don’t remember ever having this thought in my life.  But I was sitting at my desk today and felt a huge desire to stop worrying about the world.  I even want to stop knowing about it and understanding it.  What good, I wonder, does it do me or anybody else for me to understand the problem of the Greek bailout and the faulty foundation of the euro?  or the problem of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria? or the Ukraine conflict? or the economic problems for Scotland if it became independent? or racism, or religious intolerance, or the problem to democracy of the U.S. Supreme Court giving corporations the right to pour unlimited money into political lobbying?  And then there’s Africa, and the entire middle east, and Latin America, and China, and Russia, and climate change, and the rate at which humans are responsible for the extinction of other species.

I will stop.  Probably half the readers of this post have given up reading already.

It seems obvious that the first step to solving any of these problems is to know about them.  But as I look around, I’m not sure that’s happening.  So many of the solutions being offered by both the left and the right seem ill-thought out but at the same time cursed with the kind of righteous certainty that only ignorance can support.

When our problems become too overwhelming, do we as a species resort to this kind of simplistic reasoning we see so often disguised as religious and/or political principles?  or barring that, the temptation with which I am struggling, a self-imposed indifference, a refusal to worry or get involved?

 Is “Digital” the Real Sixth Sense?  

I have always felt at home with globalization made possible by the digital world.  Terrifyingly so, perhaps.

Because I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed by it.



January 19, 2015

Enough is enough

I have long been suspicious of politicians who talk about equality.  With increasing irritability, I find myself inevitably asking what kind of equality they are talking about.  As I become increasingly aware of my own gifts and limitations, it is obvious that I need other people with different gifts and limitations in order to so much as survive.  And our need for diversity applies to all living organisms.

On a slightly more limited level, I am highly suspicious of political and economic policies that seem to suggest that we should all have more or less equal wealth and opportunities.  We don’t all have the same hopes, the same things don’t make us happy, our abilities benefit from different kinds of opportunities and challenges.  We don’t want a society in which everybody is the same, and we can’t create a “fair society” in which nobody has a need to strive or struggle or compete.  Nor can we create a society where corruption or greed or self-serving laziness are eliminated.

But today I hit the limit  of my inequality tolerance.

Oxfam has just released figures preceding the annual meeting of the world’s financial leaders in Davos, Switzerland that even I find unconscionable.  In 2014, 48% of the world’s wealth was help by a mere 1% of the world’s population.  By 2016, it is set to exceed more than 50%.

Not only is it unconscionable.  This huge disparity is extremely dangerous.  Perhaps even more dangerous to the survival of humanity than extreme climate change.

Why?  Because it is this kind of inequality that leads to the kind of vicious, often religiously based, intolerance we see sweeping across the world’s continents today.  It isn’t being poor that makes people angry.  It’s being trapped.  It’s having no way out of seeing one’s children die of starvation, of living in hovels surrounded by sewage ditch streets, of having no access to education, or facing job opportunities that consist of scrounging through garbage dumps or working the streets through prostitution.

Today the hot spots of Islamic militants are where the poverty is.  In countries where the wealth disparity is not so immovable, Islamism tends to be far more tolerant.  Even in America, the land of opportunity, the land where the boy born in a log cabin can become president, the dream is beginning to lose its potential.  It’s beginning to look as if hard work does not necessarily dig oneself and one’s children out of poverty.  The top 1% are taking all the cream, even protected from higher taxes, while the working man and woman remain stuck in a rut that hard work, ambition, and even talent often cannot conquer.  And we see the lines of intolerance hardening.  Immigrants are no longer welcome by many, even those qualified to be of great benefit to America.  The tax system is based on a “top-down” system that says the rich should be allowed to keep the money they earn because it will “trickle down” to the masses.  Except it doesn’t.

What is the solution?

One’s first impulse, as even Pope Francis illustrated, is to punch back, not merely with a punch in the face but with economic sanctions, as well as drones, guns and bombs.  I can’t claim to be a complete pacifist – I suspect that some physical force is often called for.  But if the underlying economic strangle holds are not addressed, military might will eventually fail.

There are changes that can – must – be made in the economic systems which govern.  Obviously, fairer tax systems world-wide, less corruption, more job opportunities and education.  There are changes that must occur in some religious teachings, and cultural values as well.  But no system is fool-proof.  We will always have people who game the system.  There are others who manage to make disproportionate amounts of money through creativity and good luck even when that has not been their original motivation.  We don’t want to revert to those systems that pursue a fairer system at the cost of repressing creativity and originality.

In our global and rapidly changing world, our economic and social systems need constant adjustments.

I think it is only a sense of justice and community, that basic altruism and love of neighbor that can ultimately insure an economic and social system in which all of us can thrive and benefit from our mutual gifts.


January 17, 2015

Updating the worry list


Should we be unable to generate a list of our own, one of Britain’s major newspapers has just helpfully published a list of the most important things we humans might worry about for the next ten years.

Climate change:  The world has made literally no progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the first Kyoto agreement, and scientists are warning us of increasing deadly droughts, floods, water and food shortages, acidic oceans, air pollution, uncontrolled fires, and mega extinctions of up to 25% of all mammal species possibly within the next 50 years.  Oh, and 2014 has been the hottest year on record.

The global spread of a viral epidemic like SARS or Ebola:  The Black Plague swept over the world, reducing populations by 50 -75% of the population when it struck.  It is not inconceivable that a virus could jump on the back of our global communications systems today and outpace the ability of scientists to develop a cure or immunization to outwit it.

An implosion of failed states and states being taken over by religious fanatics.  Theoretically religion is supposed to make us better, more loving, more caring.  Again and again, though, it is the reason for torture and killing.  Western countries today look with horror at the terror being visited on peoples in Africa, Europe, America, and Asia by Islamists.  But Christians have more than a thousand-year history of doing exactly the same thing.  In fact, ethnic cleansing and rampant racism in our own back grounds suggest that we are even now not immune to persecuting those who are different from us.

Economic collapse:  An economic collapse similar to the one that shook the world in 2008, only bigger and longer and more universal worries some economists the way climate change worries climatologists.  Governments are still facing the problem of what to do about banks and other financial institutions that are too big to fail, and big corporations spent vast amounts of money lobbying state officials to make sure that legislation will not damage them.  Meanwhile, the gap between the richest and poorest is growing, not closing, and recently economists have produced research suggesting that this might be an endemic tendency of many modern capitalist societies, including America.  Historically, situations like these fester and simmer, until one day blowing up into outright rebellion and warfare.  Endings are not necessarily happy ones.

I think these are worries worthy of concern.  Great concern that singly or together they could even lead to the extinction of the Homo sapiens.  My problem with worries, though, especially when the worries are big and serious and global as these, is that they tend to turn people off.  We look at them and quite realistically realize that not one of us as a single person can solve any of them.  So we either deny they are happening at all, sink into despair or anger, or hope that God will do something about it rather than leaving it to us.

But the whole point of democracy, of community, or responsibility is not to say a single voice doesn’t count.  It says that lots of single voices is what change the world.  To give into the temptation of helplessness is the very thing that will contribute to our worst worries coming true.

What can I do?  Lots of little things that will change the world if a lot of us do them.  In relation to the environment, I can use my vote to make sure that I don’t help elect a climate-change denier or someone so indebted to big business that they won’t support reductions of fossil fuels and support renewables;  I can sign petitions supporting policies that I think will support work toward a creating economies that don’t destroy the environment;  I can do my best not to waste energy, turn off lights I’m not using, install solar panels, buy an energy-efficient car.  Ride a bicycle.


We can’t solve any of these problems by ourselves.  Just as we couldn’t create any of them by ourselves.  We are just single human beings.  But for better or worse, what each of us does adds up.

November 19, 2014

The liberation of being wrong

I’ve often wondered why we humans seem to have the most uncompromising convictions about things for which the evidence is the least resilient.  There’s nothing, of course, about which we might not be wrong.  We could even discover one day that the world is flat after all and that we have been interpreting what we think we observe in the wrong way.  I don’t, actually, expect to live to see that day.  There is way too much evidence, too many experiences by too many scientists and non-scientists to seriously consider that a flat world is just as likely as a round one.

But the things about which we seem to be most often intolerant are those convictions that are not broadly shared and for which the evidence is not universally convincing.  People who disagree with us in relation to religious and political convictions seem to be the two areas where there is the most fire without light.  I doubt there is a person reading this post (or writing, it for that matter) who cannot identify people — sometimes even family members — with whom we cannot have open discussion and disagreement on a question of religion or politics without at least half the people in the conversation feeling furiously frustrated and angry.

Last night I turned this seemingly distressing fact on its head.  I was watching a BBC documentary on the history of dance.  In England, a mere 400 years ago, dancing was seen by some Christians as the work of the devil.  Even dancing that did not involve touching one’s partner was seen as the first step on the road to hell.  Books were written venting on this terrible sin, assuring anyone who even contemplated dancing and did not repent was damned for eternity.

Today, there are very few people in the Western world who hold views like this.  But there are people who hold views which I personally think are just as outrageous.  Today we have deep divisions about sex, about God, about capitalism, about the limits of freedom.  In some cultures, women cannot show their face in public, cannot drive cars, are not permitted to learn to read and write.  Many of these views, in my own and other cultures, seem to my mind, to be preposterous.

But I find myself wondering what beliefs I have that may seem just as preposterous to future generations?  I worry about climate change, about our species’ continued attempts to solve our conflicts through use of physical force, about the world running out of resources to sustain our galloping population growth, which has just surpassed 7 billion.  More egocentrically, I also worry about some of the stupid, selfish, ignorant, immature things I have said and done sometimes many decades ago, and cringe in humiliation.

But all of these worries, both great and embarrassingly egocentric, are based on my convictions that are by no means indisputable.  I doubt anybody shares anything like the depths of my personal concern for my own virtue.  Not a single person, I am sure, cringes with the regret and mortification I sometimes feel at the fool I think I have on occasion made of myself.  Certainly I am wrong to think I am that important.

Or rather, I would say, I am wrong to think I am important in the way I sometimes think I am.

I’m a human being.  That is fantastic!  How lucky I am!  For all the limitations of being human, each one of us is a unique, astonishing, beautiful creature.  We all make mistakes.  We’re all incomplete.  We all make fools of ourselves in one way or other on occasion.  That doesn’t change the reality.  We are each simply incredible.  We are each simply wonderful.

Now if I can only convince myself that climate change, or our tendency to kill those who threaten us, are not going to lead to our self-extinction as a species, I have managed to make a virtue out of convincing myself that I might occasionally be wrong.  Even about those very important things about which I am absolutely positive.

Dance anyone?



September 20, 2014

What does ISIS want?

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 8:56 pm

According to the papers, ISIS – or ISIL or the Islamic State – has released another gruesome video, this one a full 55 minutes long showing various torture scenes and hostages being forced to dig their own graves.

What is ISIS trying to accomplish?

I suppose they might argue that they are carrying out the wrath of God against those who defile His commands.  But the campaigns are too slick, too cruel, too obviously being directed by  a master-mind with some specific goal in mind.

Are they trying to terrify local inhabitants into submission?  I think that, although that is one of their goals, the videos would not feature the torture and beheadings of foreigners if they were targeted specifically at the local population.

So are they trying to use the anti-American feeling and resentment built up as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation?  The U.S. certainly did not know what they were doing in Iraq, and often made things worse for millions of people than they were under Saddam Hussein.  Nor did the U.S. manage to reduce the ethnic tensions that had built up between the various religious groups.

I think they are trying to accomplish something more than that. I suspect ISIS trying to goad the US and UK into sending military to join the ground fight –  that are they reasoning that the presence of American and other Western troops will so alienate the people in Iran and Syria and other neighbouring countries that they will support ISIS instead.

I absolutely support President Obama’s attempt with John Kerry to bring together a real coalition of middle-eastern countries to join the fight against ISIS.  Because if the people there are not determined to overthrow ISIS, in the long run, ISIS will win.  For the same reason, I think it would be a dreadful mistake to send our own ground troops in.  We are using air power to support those indigenous fighters already there.  It’s got to be their fight this time, not that of the West.  We can help.  We can  give support.

But we will only make things worse if we make it our war.

July 5, 2014

A heroic lesson still unlearned

The most frequently read post on this blog by far is the post  Why do abused children become abusers?    Why, I asked, are a disproportionate number of abusers people who have themselves been abused?  Would you not think that they, above all, would know how painful and destructive it is?  The key explanation seems to be that we don’t learn kindness and love through negative example.  We need to learn how to love from positive experience – at least from one other person in our lives for however short a time.

I have reflected on this fact again several times this week but especially this morning when I read that Israeli pathologists have announced that the Palestinian teenager kidnapped and murdered in an apparent revenge attack following the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli boys last week, was burned alive.  Not just murdered.  Murdered in what must have been excruciating agony.

Would you not think that every Jew in the land, above all, would shudder at the horror of this act?  This is a people living in a land returned to them after the Holocaust, in which up to 8 million Jews were put into gas chambers for no other reason than that they were Jews.  This is a people whose by-word is “Never Again!”

This is not to suggest that the majority of the Israelis support this ghastly revenge.  I strongly suspect that the majority are as appalled as I am.

But how could there be a single Israeli who feels that this act is not abhorrent?

I think it is because kindness and love are not learned simply because one sees how terrible hatred and abuse can be.  Unfortunately, there is in all of us an instinctive desire for what we blindly call “justice,” a “tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye.”

But history shows us it doesn’t work.  The legacy is bitterness and anger and an unending cycle of revenge.

It will not bring peace.

March 1, 2014

The question of war in Ukraine

Filed under: Political thoughts,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 4:10 pm

Last month I began an exploration of World War I, because that was when wars became industrialized, using tanks,  germ warfare and mustard gas, bombs and submarines and the hell-holes of the trenches.  I thought that if I could understand that war that I would be able to decide for myself whether I thought the horrors of war were ever justified.

I have now read two books about World War I, read reviews of four more, and thus far watched three BBC documentaries debating whether it was a futile war which Britain and America should have stayed out of, or whether, terrible as it was, the Allied victory saved the world from even greater enslavement, brutality, and bloodshed.  I know a great deal more about the events leading up to that war and the reasoning of politicians as they grappled with it.  I now have a great deal of information but rather than producing answers, it has left me with many more questions.

BelgiumThe first thing that seems apparent to me is that at the beginning, it is rarely clear what a war is really about.  Even those who start it seem to find themselves fighting for different reasons and goals than they first had in mind.  History generally begins WWI the Sunday morning in June 1914  when  a student drop-out assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the  heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as he was on his way to church in Sarajevo.  This took place in the context of  an empire threatened by calls for independence in the Balkans.  Germany immediately sent word that it would support the Empire should it attack what is now called Bosnia.  It looked as if it could be a short sharp war that nobody would notice and would quell the unrest which the Empire was facing.  But Russia, worried that the attack could spread to Serbia, lined up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Then France, responding to its alliance with Russia allied herself with Russia.  Germany at this point thought it could take over France before Russia had time to get there, and invaded Belgium because militarily that was the best way to invade France.

It almost worked.  There was one last battle to be won, in which Germany had overwhelming force, and they had already drawn up their demands for any peace settlement.  It included parts of France and Russia.  But they lost the battle and had to retreat.

That is what changed Britain’s mind about getting involved.  First of all, Germany had invaded Belgium, a sovereign country uninvolved in the dispute, for no other reason than that it was militarily advantageous to them.  This violated an international agreement, a violation which made Britain feel highly vulnerable should a triumphant Germany be installed across the Channel.  Germany was also building huge ships, which ultimately would threaten Britain’s control of the high seas and so the entire British colonial empire.  Finally, Germany’s goals, as revealed in the demands for the peace settlement which they had thought was imminent, showed a Germany bent on vastly expanding the lands it controlled.  Almost overnight the British public backed a war which up until then they had resisted.

America got involved in the war on similar grounds of self-preservation.  For several years, President Woodrow Wilson kept American out of a European war which most Americans felt had nothing to do with them.  Wilson also saw his own position as a peace-maker.  But a German diplomat stationed in Washington rather stupidly – from Germany’s point of view anyway – admitted that intercepted messages from Germany to Japan and Mexico were indeed valid.  Germany was encouraging Japan and Mexico to invade the U.S., promising Mexico that it would support its attempt to regain Texas, and plotting with Japan to take control of Latin America.  As in Britain, the American public  swung behind a war effort against Germany almost immediately after they felt personally threatened.

World War I killed an average of ten thousand people a day for four years, including eight million troops and almost as many civilians.

The news today is about Ukraine.  It has some worrisome similarities to the situation in 1914.  Is it all right for the EU and US to effectively say to Russia that they can take over the Crimea simply cutting it off from Ukraine?   Should we say that the Russian helicopters flying over that part of the country is not an unacceptable invasion?  should we pretend that we don’t think  the troops who have taken over the sea and air ports aren’t Russian?  Should we say it’s not worth the fight?  – after all half the people in the Crimea speak Russian and would prefer to be part of Russia. Crimea is only that bottom bit sticking out into the Black Sea.  And Russia only gave the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.

Is it comparable to Germany’s invading Belgium in WWI?  And if so, was it worth fighting then?  Would millions fewer have died if Britain and America had stayed out of the war altogether?  Could the Crimea become another Belgium?  Should it?

I don’t know.  Ukraine does not have a functioning government.  It has been corrupt almost since the Orange Revolution.  The people in the west of the country want to become part of the European Union some day.  Can we help and support the creation of a free, truly democratic government and functioning economy there without stumbling into an escalating war?  Can we find a compromise with Russia that protects the strategic interests of all the parties?

We all are in great need of wisdom and skill and knowledge.  And good fortune.

January 29, 2014

I ain’t gonna study war…

I’ve been struggling with the question of war once again in response to The Game of War, a recent post on the Writer’s Treehut blog.  Then this morning I found  Ain’t Gonna Study War No More in my email, sent by a friend in memory of Pete Seeger who died two days ago.  I’ve been listening to folk songs from the 60’s and 70’s all day.

I was not prepared for the depth of feeling aroused by a return to this time in my life.  I remembered again how strongly I felt about war, about racial discrimination, about the poor.  And I thought again that we were right.

Oh yes, we were naive, and innocent, and simple.  But we were right about war.  We were right about loving each other.  We were right that we needed to care about each other.  And we were willing to go out there and fight for what we thought was right.  We were not all just sitting around in communes smoking pot and passing flowers to each other in a land of complete sexual liberty.  People literally died in the firing lines of the fight.

But we had no idea then just how unclear and how long the road for peace, for civil rights, for justice, and against poverty was.  I think we thought that the world could be turned around in a generation — our generation, in fact.  Now I look at the continued and increasing horrors of war and floods of refugees, at the environmental degradation, at the increasing difference between the rich and poor, and I never dreamed in those days that it could possibly become so bad.

We had no idea the problems we thought we could solve were so complex.  I think we still don’t.  Actually,  we don’t need to “study war no more,” but to study war and poverty and the environment and our impulse to kill each other a lot more.  We need to understand ourselves, our motivations, the conditions which bring out the best and the worst much better than we do.

Is there something about war, for instance, that we do truly find glorious and heroic?  The BBC is showing a surprisingly good documentary on World War I right now.  I learned last night that the prime minister, and at different times, members of the cabinet broke down in tears, several men even resigned their posts, as they contemplated the oncoming war.   What they saw was Germany set on control of the entire European continent.  So they saw no alternative to war.   Was there?  Were there alternatives that would have been better than those four ghastly years that killed 8 million troops and almost as many civilians?  Was there an alternative to what was basically a continuation of this war in World War II during which 66 million people died?

This very day, negotiators are gathered in Geneva struggle to find an alternative to the continuing civil war in Syria.  Northern Ireland has still not fully resolved its conflict, and Africa today is seeing the daily carnage of war.

I’m old now, and there is little I can see that I might contribute to the solutions we humans have created for ourselves.

But the truth is, young or old, none of us can do it alone.  In fact, each of us can do so little by ourselves that the great temptation is to despair.  We can touch the lives of only a very small number of people.  Our kindness can reach only a very small circle.  Our individual problem-solving must be focused or we won’t answer any questions at all.  We each must be satisfied to do our small bit, and hope that others do too.

We’re all in this together.  Even the most powerful, the most gifted, the most sainted need others.





October 13, 2013

Peanut butter panic

Filed under: Growing Old,Worries — theotheri @ 2:59 pm
Tags: , ,

Last night at about ten o’clock, I read a review of  some introductory research suggesting that the loss of the sense of smell is one of the earliest signs of dementia.  Specifically, if the sense of smell is more impaired in the left nostril, it may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.  If the greater impairment is in the right nostril, it may indicate some other form of cognitive impairment.

The research used about a tablespoon of peanut butter with a blind-folded patient who was instructed to indicate when they could smell it.  A difference of about ten centimeters (four inches)  in the distance between  when the peanut butter was detected by the right and left nostrils turned out to be significant.

I dashed into the kitchen and dished up a soup -spoon of peanut butter.  It could hardly be called a blind study, since it was self-administered, but it seemed to me I couldn’t smell peanut butter with either or both nostrils, at any distance.  I dug around the cupboards for something more strongly scented, but although curry powder made me sneeze, I couldn’t actually say I could smell it.  Ditto for the vinegar, orange, and tomato juice.

My scientifically validated conclusion, based on this evidence, is that either a) my allergies are still acting up, b) I’ve never had a good sense of smell, c) peanut butter doesn’t have a smell, or d) I’m in the late stages of cognitive impairment.  (Notice how I have cleverly omitted the possibility that I’m in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.)

I have noticed, though, that I have to concentrate harder than I used to when I’m working on cognitive tasks or trying to figure out a problem — like how to make some new gadget work that three-year-olds can figure out in about as many minutes.

I also  concluded many years ago that achieving true and honest self-knowledge makes understanding quantum physics look easy.

So if I’m really loosing it, some complete stranger reading this blog will probably know it well before I do.

October 11, 2013

Which is the worsest?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 7:08 pm

Like many others, I have been watching in stupefied horror as the House Republicans try to un-do legislation passed by an earlier Congress by holding the country hostage.

Some changes need to be made so that a minority is not again in a position to negate legislation which is already law because they don’t like it.  But that is for the future.  The question now is not just how to get government workers back in their offices again, but how not to avoid an even worse situation in which the United States defaults on its debts.

I have thought that Obama is right to refuse to compromise on Obamacare at this point.

But if it comes to it, and the choice is between defaulting on our debts and defunding (ie, essentially destroying) Obamacare, I think Obama should choose the lesser of two evils and make it clear that it is the Republicans who are responsible.

The health care being made available through Obamacare is essential for tens of thousands of seriously sick people today unable to afford essential medical treatment.  It is terrible to refuse to help them.  But the economic destruction that will be caused by default by a major economy whose currency is the reserve currency of the world will cause even more suffering and poverty.  It will last for years – some economists think the economic effects could last a generation.

And the loss of prestige and trust and leadership by a country that does not pay its debt because it is fighting over whether to provide health care for its sick will probably be permanent.

I’m finding it hard these days to be proud to be an American.  We seem to be betraying so many of our own basic principles of justice and responsibility.

September 6, 2013

Why we shouldn’t bomb Syria

I have just read what for me is a compelling case against the United States bombing Syria.  The following are my own words, but the ideas are taken directly from  Dan Ebener.  He calls it “the Catholic case against attacking Syria,” using Catholic social doctrine but I can’t see what’s Catholic about it.  I’m convinced because I think he is right:  it gravely risks making things much worse rather than better for just about everybody involved.

Ebener gives several convincing arguments:

  • The evidence is pretty strong that somebody used chemical weapons.  It’s more likely to have been the Syrian government, but the evidence is not conclusive, and it could have been the branch of rebels supported by Al Qaeda trying to get the U.S. involved to support their attempts to overthrow Assad.
  • It would be illegal for the U.S. to bomb Syria under the circumstances.  Russia and China will clearly use their vote on the UN security council to veto a military strike on Syria.  Since the U.S. itself was not attacked, we will violate international law if we attack Syria without international backing.  In other words, as Ebener puts it, “we would be breaking international law against a country that we think broke international law to show that breaking international law is wrong.”
  • But let’s assume the U.S. bombs Syria and removes Assad from power.  I think about the possible alternatives.  The most powerful of the diverse rebel groups is probably controlled by extremists such as Al Qaeda.  If they gain power, they will have access to Assad’s chemical weapons.  Whether or not they have already used chemical weapons (and they may have) would they use them to maintain power?   I fear it is a strong possibility.
  • Along with putting the extremists in power, the chances that US military involvement will escalate the war seem to me to be huge.  Iran has already said it will not stand idly by, and Russia has made it clear that it is not a neutral observer.  How can a situation like this possibly make things better for the millions of Syrians already displaced?    or the millions more civilians caught in the line of increasing fire?  It is no good saying we would not target innocent civilians.  Modern warfare makes it almost impossible not to kill innocent bystanders.  Wouldn’t it be better to use the funding that would be used for a military attack to provide humanitarian assistance?
  • I was living in England on 9/11.  The response throughout Europe was one of solidarity with America.  But I saw that solidarity slip away as the Bush administration decided to use it as a chance to attack Iraq under the false pretenses that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction but was really a war in pursuit of oil and greater control in the Middle East.

Today, I’m convinced that our credibility and reputation would be far greater if we relied more on demonstrating that we are a country that lives according to its principles and the rule of law, even when we are threatened.

But the alternative to not bombing Syria is not doing nothing.   So what can we do?

  • We can give much more in humanitarian aid to help the refugees both in and around Syria who have fled the violence, support a full-fledged arms embargo in relation to all sides in the Syrian conflict, and reiterate again that the only viable lasting solution is political.
  • We can give our strongest backing to the United Nations/Arab League and call for a conference including Iran to work toward a negotiated settlement,
  • This settlement should not make the mistake we made in Iraq where we tried to replace all government institutions and people who had served in Saddam’s government.  It created a political vacuum, and ultimately simply changed the groups theoretically in control.  It has not established true democracy or eliminated regular acts of terrorism.  A true solution has to include the entire diversity of ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

America is often a trigger-happy country, and we tend to think that if our bombs are the biggest our moral superiority must be beyond question.  But the world today needs countries with the wisdom to find other paths to peace besides violence.

Besides, what we’ve had to recognize more than once since Vietnam is that our bombs simply don’t automatically make us the winners anymore.

And we really do need peace if we are going to survive.

June 8, 2013

Nothing to fear?

The British today are on fire after Barack Obama’s confirmation that UK spies are cooperating with the CIA to monitor the phone and internet communications of UK citizens.  Barack Obama, in the meantime, is wheeling out the old saw “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”  According to him, we all must bear some modicum of inconvenience and loss of inconsequential privacy in order to keep the world safe from terrorists.

I’m not a defender of terrorists, I do not want to minimize the terrible suffering they can inflict, and I think responsible governments everywhere must work to maximize the security of their citizens.

But I do not look without a certain amount of serious apprehension at our governments’ increasing intrusion into our lives without warrants or any court oversight.  I’m not worried that some secret activity of mine is about to be revealed to the glare of publicity or government scrutiny.

But I do not trust our government – or any government – absolutely.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Americans are not exempt from this reality.  Our founding fathers set up a constitution with checks and balances for this very reason. I fear the potential secret terrorism of my own government as much as I fear the terrorism from others.

Has our government ever lied to us?  Do you think they knew that Iraq did not actually have weapons of mass destruction?  Did President Reagan tell us Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala, was “man of great personal integrity and commitment,” even though he knew Montt’s forces had killed tens of thousands of Mayans in a single year, because it was a price worth paying to maintain a right-wing government in Central America?   Do you trust that the US had nothing to do with the mysterious dismissal of Montt’s trial which found him guilty of war crimes against humanity?  What about Guantanamo?  or Allende, the democratically elected president of  Chile?

Or etcetera.  I don’t believe the US government is guilty of every treacherous act suggested by every conspiracy theory offered to us in the last fifty years.

But I’m old enough to recognize the human condition, and I think watering down our system of checks and balances is a very dangerous development.

In fact, I find it terrifying.

March 19, 2013

Worrying out loud

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Worries — theotheri @ 9:41 pm
Tags: ,

Cyprus is on the edge of total bankruptcy.  The European Union has offered them a bail out but Cyprus has to come up with a contribution of their own in order to get the bailout, which the EU and the IMF have suggested come from a 10% tax on the savings deposited in the Cypriot banks.  The Cypriot parliament, in the face of mass demonstrations on the street, have just refused to authorize such a tax.  Right now the situation is in stale-mate.  The banks have been closed for the holiday, and now seem to be in lock down.  Once the cash in the cash machines runs out, people will be running out of money.

I see the Cyprus situation as quite grave – not just for Cyprus, not just for Europe, but for the world economy, with all the implications for war and strife that entails.  I cannot see a solution, but what is more worrying, no economists of almost any persuasion is offering one either.  They all do agree that the collapse of the euro could be close to catastrophic, and I’ve read a lot of analyses about what went wrong, but how to fix it feels like asking how to get somebody out who is fast sinking into quick sand.
The European Union began as a free trade union to bind Europe’s nations together so that something like WWII would never happen again.  But the currency union which came later was cobbled together by politicians against the advice of economists who said that it could not work unless participating nations were more fiscally united.  As it is, each country still runs its own budgets.  The Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain, Greece, even France, continue to run up deficits that they used to deal with by devaluing their currencies, but which is not possible when they are tied to the euro.  Meanwhile, Germany has greatly increased its productivity, and benefited greatly from a euro that is undervalued relative to the strength of their economy.  Even with the re-integration of eastern Germany, they are now by far the strongest economy in Europe.  
The Germans do not want to see the euro destroyed — they have benefited from it too much, and will also be badly burned if it goes down. But they are not willing to bail out other countries who they see as having failed to grasp the nettle.  Meanwhile, countries that suffered under Germany during WWII are arguing that this is WWIII fought on the economic front, and Cyprus said in words of one syllable today that they would choose bankruptcy and bring Germany down with them rather than let Germany dictate a 10% tax on all their savings.
On the other hand, Cyprus is awash with billions of euros of corrupt money of Russians storing their ill-gotten gains in Cypriot banks.  They would be hit by the tax, which is why Putin called it unfair but might also be why Brussels as well as the IMF would be happy with it.  Unfortunately the Cypriot banks themselves are not being asked to pay the price;  their savers are.
There is a lot of blame – both in Brussels, and among individual national governments who have lied both about the size of the deficits they have run up and to the people who elected them. The people least responsible for the debacle, the working people, are the ones being asked to pay the highest price.
The problem, though, is that I don’t see a way to protect the average worker.  Period.
In some ways it’s just like Syria – hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, and millions of people are now refugees.  But I have little hope that Muslim Brotherhood, or the Sunnis who are among the rebels, will be any better than Assad who is an Alawaite, a third Muslim group exiled to the mountains for years by the ruling Sunnis until Assad’s father got control.  The Sunnis and the Shias have been at each other’s throats since Mohammed died, and whether it’s Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., they view each other as heretics whom they have a God-given mission to wipe from the face of the earth.  It makes Northern Ireland look like a child’s sandbox.
Frankly, I’m glad I’m not running the world.
But I wish I thought the people who are were better at it than I would be.


December 27, 2012

Not Porque but Por Qua

In the face of tragedies, we so often ask Why?  How can this seemingly inexplicable loss fit into any meaningful plan?

One of the most heroic and constructive answers to this question I’ve ever heard came from a Spanish mother who had lost her son.  Once I was over the shock, she said, I decided not to ask myself “Porque?” but “Por qua?”  She stopped asking why – as if somebody else were in charge – and started to ask instead “what for?”  What, she asked, could she do with this loss, how could she make something good come of it.

On Christmas Eve this year, Michael Moore wrote a letter that gives me hope that perhaps America is beginning to ask that question after the Newtown massacre.

Moore’s view is that the National Rifle Association is slowly self-destructing with its call for guns in every school in the country.  Nonetheless, he says, “These gun massacres aren’t going to end any time soon.”

Yes, we need strong gun laws, we need a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons and magazine clips that hold more than 7 bullets.  We need better background checks and better mental health services.  Yes, it would help.  It is virtually impossible to buy a handgun in New York City and the result is the number of murders per year has gone from 2,200 to under 400.  But America’s problem with violence is too deep to be controlled simply by tightening our gun laws.

It would not have stopped the Newtown massacres, just as it would not have stopped thousands of other gun killings that take place every year in America with guns legally owned by people who are not mentally unstable.

The problem is America’s love affair with violence.  There is no other country in the world with a murder rate approaching ours.  Even in those countries where more than 50% of households have guns.


Moore points out that we are a nation founded on genocide and built on the backs of slaves. We slaughtered 600,000 of each other in a civil war. We “tamed the Wild West with a six-shooter.”  Even today we rape and beat and kill our women at a staggering rate: every three hours a woman is murdered in the USA ; every three minutes a woman is raped in the USA; and every 15 seconds a woman is beaten in the USA.  And we are a country that invades countries who didn’t attack us. We’re currently using drones in a half-dozen countries, often killing civilians.  We, along with North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran still have a death penalty.  And without compassion, we put up with the death of tens of thousands of Americans  each year because they are uninsured.

After Newtown, though, Moore thinks people really do want change.  Meaningful change.  Not just sympathy and flowers, and feeling sorry about it but ultimately carrying on as usual.  But we’ve got to change something more than our gun laws.  Moore suggests we have to change ourselves in fundamental ways.

We need to change the fear that convinces us that we need guns to protect ourselves from each other.  We don’t buy guns to protect ourselves from invading armies.  We buy guns to kill each other.  Unfortunately, racism and ethnic prejudice rather than the facts determines who it is that we fear is going to mug or burglarize us.

And we  need to change our transformation of American independence into what has become a ME society.  Instead of being our brother’s keeper, we have started to tell people unable to get a job, the homeless, the woman who has been raped, children who are hungry or abused that this is America:  you are not my problem – solve your own problems for yourself.  We need to become a real society again, not just a huge group of separate individuals.  We need to care about what happens to our brothers and sisters.

Because, writes Moore, ” it all sooner or later becomes our problem, doesn’t it?  Take away too many safety nets and everyone starts to feel the impact. Do you want to live in that kind of society, one where you will then have a legitimate reason to be in fear?”

Moore’s original letter is on his website.


December 15, 2012

American dream turned nightmare

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

Here in England, I watched last night, as no doubt millions of others did, as regular news programmes were cancelled to report live from the horror unfolding at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut.  I turned out the light with the knowledge that 20 children, six adults, and a 20-year-old gunman were dead.

Along with anguished cries and expressions of bewilderment that something so seemingly irrational can occur at all, there are calls for stricter gun laws.  I don’t think the action is quite as inexplicable as many people think, and although I think the obsession with owning a gun in America is actually itself often irrational, I doubt the problem can be solved by stricter gun laws.

But would stricter gun laws at least help?  For at least the last decade in the United States, gun-related homicides have averaged about 12,000 deaths per year.  An additional 16- 17,000 deaths result from gun-related suicides, and another 5,000 from action by law enforcement personnel.  That’s an average of more than 80 deaths a day.  In Japan, which has the strictest laws in the world, there are between 1 and 12 gun-related homicides annually.

But I’m not convinced.  The U.S. constitutional amendment making alcohol illegal simply drove the problem underground and provided a market in which organized crime flourished.  Making drugs illegal may be filling up our prisons, but it is not solving the drug problem.  Guns in America, too, are a reflection of a deeper set of cultural attitudes.  Something deeper, beyond the reach of simple legislation, has to change in our values.

What are these values?  There seems to me to be a violent dynamic often running through the mantra of American independence and opportunity.  In the promise that anyone who works hard can be a success lies the potential for a particular humiliation in failure.  Americans are supposed to be the best.  We honor those who build bigger bombs, higher buildings, bigger business, larger piles of money whatever the cost.  We fight for ourselves and for our rights.

But given the history of our country, that fight is often with physical force.   In many ways, we are a violent country.  Many Americans think they need guns to protect themselves, and that to appear weak is, by its very nature not to invite support but to invite attack.   This is not just evident in relation to our natural security.  In America, there is an average of almost 5 homicides in every 100,000 people annually, double the average in any other developed country in the world.  In Canada it  is 1.5 per 100,000, in England 1.1.

 I don’t think we fully understand  what may be an unconscious support for values which, unintentionally, support much of the violence in America.  There is the obvious political split between Republicans and Democrats, and a similar split between urban and rural areas where hunting provides an obvious justification and familiarity with guns.  But are there deeper subterranean clefts?  I would like to see some serious research undertaken.  Do attitudes toward gun control run parallel with attitudes toward the death penalty or with attitudes toward physical punishment in general?  toward child-rearing practices, in particular toward the use of physical punishment of children, or the value of education?  are there identifiable differences in religious affiliation, among socio-economic or cultural groups, in attitudes toward law enforcement, toward government?  Do attitudes of recent immigrants differ from those whose families immigrated generations ago?

Similar questions arise in relation to those who commit gun crimes such as the killing spree we have just witnessed?  Under what conditions do they grow up, what is their familiarity with guns?  with tv, movies, and computer games with strong violent themes?  Who are their heroes?  What kind of schools do they attend, and what were their experiences there?  are they typically seen as failures?  bullied? bullies themselves? truants or drop-outs?  What of their family life?  do they live with both parents?  do they have siblings?  How specifically do they present themselves during the killing spree?   as anti-heroes, for instance, dressed in black or in some kind of combat clothes?  Do they seem, in other words, to be seeking some kind of post-mortem  celebrity or at least notoriety?  or revenge?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think before we try to solve the problems of gun crime in America, we need to understand more than we do about its deep-rooted causes.




November 27, 2012

A challenge too big to talk about?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Worries — theotheri @ 4:47 pm

I’ve just read a summary of a report commissioned by the United Nations into global warming.

The prospects for our planet in the next 80 years could be much much worse than I’d imagined.  I can see why people go around denying it.  It feels too horrendous to deal with.  So let’s live for now and let the future generations deal with it.

The future generations, though, are already born.  They are our children, and unquestionably our grandchildren.  And it is unlikely to be a small inconvenience for them.  It’s potentially drastic.  Potentially deadly.

I do know from psychological studies that we often simply repress news that we find intolerable.  No, I say, this cancer isn’t terminal;  no, my child is not retarded, no I don’t have an alcohol problem, or a drug addiction.  No, I say instead, science makes a lot of mistakes, and this is a mistake.

I also know that scientists and government officials have felt that scare stories about global warming are apt to be counter-productive for that reason, and so have soft-pedaled the most extreme possibilities.

And I do know – better than most – that science makes mistakes.  I also know that the research on global warming is by no means clear cut.  The climate is incredibly complex and convoluted, and is beyond the current reach of science to comprehend totally.  But we are taking a terrifying risk if we simply put all our eggs in the basket that science might be wrong.  We take out insurance against all kinds of things that science tells us have a far lower chance of happening.  We get vaccinations and take out health and life insurance — just in case in the unlikely event…

But global warming seems too big, too overwhelming, too complex etc.  I know it is.  I’m sitting here thinking that with the short years I have left in my life, if I can make even a small contribution to reducing environmental pollution and global warming, that’s what I would like to do.

But there seems so little I can do besides turn off the lights I’m not using, and install solar panels.

But believe me, that alone is not going to save the world.  Even if we all do it, it’s not enough.

I haven’t given up, but I don’t know the answer.

In my next post, I’ll summarize what the United Nations report says.  Look away now if you’d rather not know.

November 25, 2012

Worry Wart of the Week Award

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 5:04 pm
Tags: ,

I’m nominating myself the Worry Wart of the Week Award.  I am invariably an inveterate optimist but I’ve just had a glimpse of the evangelical right in the United States.  I’m working hard to find an upside to the story.  Because the future of America doesn’t just matter to me as an American.  America is too big, and has held up ideals of democracy and freedom and the rule of law that are banners for people  all over the world. We aren’t the only ones who matter, of course.  But what happens in America has global import, and  these ideals have taken a serious battering in this new millennium.

I am still sitting here at my computer stunned by the discovery that in 2008 the state of Kentucky passed a law requiring all officers working for the state’s Homeland Security to acknowledge the “security provided by the Almighty God.”  And just to make sure that this law is not misunderstood as mere hope, the law states that anyone refusing to acknowledge this divine security is subject to serving 12 months in prison.

It gets worse.

An organization defending the civil rights of atheists brought a lawsuit against the law, which it won at the Circuit Court, but which was then overturned by the state Court of Appeals.  The state Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, which leaves the Appeals Court ruling the final one as of now.

Whether you believe in God or not, I cannot see how this is not a blatant violation of the separation of church and state, and a complete disregard for the freedom of religion guaranteed by the US Constitution.

If you want to read more – and can bear it – see Jail for Not Believing in God.

Personally, I’m trying to cheer myself up by bolstering my faith in human ingenuity.  A U.S. start-up company (the article doesn’t say, but it’s probably run by a couple of whiz kids who are considering dropping out of college) may have identified a revolutionary way of filling up bottles of water for the billion of people who do not have access to safe drinking water.

Namib Desert BeetleActually, it probably shouldn’t be called revolutionary.  It’s really evolutionary.  A beetle survives in the African Namib desert that gets an average annual rainfall of half an inch.  The beetle harvests moisture from the air by first getting it to condense on its back and then storing the water.   The evolutionary inventors think they can develop bottles using the same process that could store up to three litres (about 3 quarts) an hour.

That much water would be almost tantamount to a flood for the three billion people who live in water-scarce areas in the world today.

If it weren’t for Kentucky,  one might almost be tempted to call it a God-send.

November 1, 2012

The message of the witches

I’ve learned more about the history of Halloween and witches, and read more about witches today than I have in a whole life time.  I will link to some of writing I’ve found most provocative because they are worth going to.  Here are some of the things I have found most fascinating.

When I went trick or treating as a child, I was told Halloween began as a day in which people who had died and gone to purgatory came to our doors to beg for prayers in order to be in heaven to celebrate All Saints Day the following morning.  I recently learned that the custom had come to America from Ireland, and I myself have seen it return to this side of the pond almost certainly as a commercial holiday to fill in the space between the end of summer and Christmas.  Until the last 20 years, few farmers even grew pumpkins here in England, and when they first began to appear in supermarkets,  nobody knew how to cook them.

Now I have been astonished to learn that, like Christmas, Halloween was a pagan feast converted by the Roman church to fit Christian theology.  For the Druids it was a Festival of the Dead, and it remained full of dread until modern times.

The origin of witches goes back much further even than the Druids.  “Witch” is a derivative of the word “widow,” and the world over, women who survived their husbands were viewed with fear and suspicion.   Even the wives of gods were potential witches. Kali, the wife of the Hindu god Shiva is pictured with withered skin and dressed in black.  In earthly life,  widows were typically cast out with no community support.  Even in modern times in the Western world, wives could be left outcasts and penniless if their husbands died before them.  Widowed women, therefore, in order to survive often resorted to helping others.   That help might be in the form of potions, some mere placebos, some effective, some deadly.  Witches were sometimes sought to cast spells on enemies, and predict the future.  A mixture of fear and belief made a witch’s life style a dangerous one.

What of witches today?  Germaine Greer  has a warning more terrifying than any Halloween story.  Stephen Hawking, the renown physicist at Cambridge, warns that humans are destroying earth’s environment and will not survive another thousand years if we do not colonize another planet.  Greer points out that life on this planet, from microbes to humans, are interconnected.  We cannot survive without the support of an incredibly complex system beginning with microbes, which support plant life, which are essential for animal life.  Another planet, she points out, will not come equipped with the support system we need.

The really scary Halloween story is how desperately we need to care for our planet.

June 5, 2012

The end of an era?

One may have thought that the Diamond Jubilee weekend ended with the concert outside Buckingham Palace last night but this is a grand celebration stretching over a double holiday in to today.  This morning was a ceremony of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s cathedral followed by a great parade of horses and carriages back to the palace, a fly past, and the Queen’s appearance on the balcony in front of tens of thousands of well wishers.

It’s all very celebratory, and yet…

Last night we were watching the concert with Tom Jones belting out “Why, why, why Delilah?” joined by the vast crowd, including the Archbishop of Canterbury waving his Union Jack as he cried out with everyone else “Why, why why…?!”

At which point Peter said “they aren’t just saying congratulations.  And thank you.  They are saying farewell.  It’s an end of an era.”

And I knew what he meant as I sat there with a vague premonition of something similar.  First of all, the Queen’s husband, the Duke of  Edinburgh was unable to join her because Sunday evening he was taken to hospital where they are keeping him “under supervision” with a bladder infection for at least 3-4 days.  So the Queen is making all her subsequent public appearances without him.  She kept smiling and waving.  But I could not help but remember the stoic bravery that she and so many others showed during the bombings of World War II.  The Queen has been married for 65 years;  her husband is 91, and in April he was absent from all the Easter celebrations because he’d been rushed to hospital with a heart condition.  I cannot imagine what she must be feeling during these last two days.  I know if my husband were in hospital, I would be just want to cancel everything.  At best I’d be walking through celebrations like these like a zombie.  But the Queen keeps smiling and saving.  She is a very strong, committed woman.

And all of this against the backdrop of the euro crisis.  The European Union was first formed after WWII to make sure that the nations of Europe would never go to war with each other again.  But the monetary union is in grave danger.  The United States is aware of the danger.  Britain (which is part of the European Union but not part of the euro) is profoundly aware of the danger.  China is aware of the danger.  But it looks as if the European politicians are fiddling while Rome burns.  Germany, which has benefited hugely from the euro, is adamant that the countries in trouble must simply cut their budgets.

But it’s not going to work.  Yes, budgets must eventually be brought into line, but not yet.  Right now the economies of these countries are shrinking faster than they are cutting costs.  And people are going to the wall.  By which I mean, they are living without electricity, without basic, medical supplies often needed simply to stay alive, often without sufficient food.  And millions are unable to get jobs to replace the ones that have been cut.

I know I don’t know what is going to happen.  But I do know this is a seriously dangerous time for the world.  And especially for Europe.

Perhaps it really is the end of an era.

May 4, 2012

September 15, 2011

War as the last resort

Filed under: Just Stuff,The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Worries — theotheri @ 4:29 pm

Someone has just pointed out to me that there is a strong argument to be made that war was really the stimulus that finally ended the Great Depression.

The implications are worrisome to say the least.

  • When a country is being attacked, nobody worries about the size of the deficit when a country is at war.  They even buy bonds to finance government spending.
  • Nobody worries about the sacrifices they are making, or goes out on strike because their pensions might not be big enough in 20 or 30 years.
  • And the chances that a country will go to war are much greater when people are threatened, when they are jobless, without hope, and unable to get enough to food, water, or shelter.
  •  Opposing political parties in Congress or Parliaments unite in a wild patriotic frenzy to support the war effort.

50 million people died during World War II.  But it did end the Great Depression, and usher in a period of unprecedented prosperity in many parts of the world, not least in the United States.

I hope we can find a better way out of the world’s economic morass this time.



September 13, 2011

Sitting vs fighting

After my post yesterday on the alternative responses to the terrorist attack on 9/11, I have returned to a question I have been asking myself for more than half my life:  when should we fight and when should we choose instead to sit quietly knowing that we are strong enough to endure without lashing out?

One of the reasons I feel so betrayed by the Iraq war is that it was justified as a response to liberate people being persecuted, imprisoned or displaced by a dictator whom they were impotent to fight.  As a child of World War II, I came to believe that sometimes one cannot say about injustice “it’s nothing to do with me.”  And so I thought the Iraqi war was a just war.

I believe now that it was wrong on two counts.

First, we had and still have no idea how to mend Iraq, and we should have known that before we went in.  George Bush said when he was running for the presidency that he was not into nation-building.  I wish he’d kept his word.  We have not built a nation, but America has lost huge prestige and moral leadership in the world.  I know because I live outside the United States and the press here is not beholden to Washington, and does not have to worry about alienating its American readers.

Second, the lies that the American people were told were culpable.  They weren’t mistakes.  They were lies.  The evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction was substantial before the war began.  What we really went in for was oil.  It’s why, in the end, we didn’t wait to build a coalition through the United Nations.  And why we didn’t listen to the nuclear inspectors who thought it was unlikely that the weapons were there.  And why we were told that Al Qaeda was there when they palpably were not.  Al Qaeda got in on the coat tails of the American military.

Once we were fighting the war, our methods of torture, of rendition, of indefinite detention in Guantanamo are violating our principles of justice and are in violation of international law and the Geneva Treaty of which we are signatories.

But I’m not sure that means we should never go to war, never be prepared to fight to the death.   It seems to me to be a very complex question fraught with terrible guilt.  The costs of war are so great that going to war in situations where we cannot win the peace seem to me to be immoral.  Obviously, going to war as a mere manifestation of power is wrong.  Going to war on false premises or even as a result of having failed to learn the full facts is wrong.  Going to war when one has not exhausted all the other means of re-establishing justice is wrong.

But when in those situations when we honestly believe we have exhausted all other alternatives?  Is there, in other words, really such a thing as a just war?

Should we sanction a non-violent approach like Gandhi’s in  a fight against a mad man like Hitler, for instance?  Or more recently, were we right to refuse to tolerate Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of the Albanians in Kosovo?  I think so.  Should we have intervened militarily in the slaughter in Rwanda?  Are we right to be supporting the Libyan rebels with NATO air strikes as we speak?

After 9/11, America really could have chosen to sit quietly for a little while instead of “kicking ass.”

But I’m not convinced that sitting quietly is always the right choice.

Although I do know that fighting is never the whole answer.  After the military were finished and World War II officially ended, America spent years helping to rebuild Europe and Japan.  At least we had learned the lesson of World War I that total military victory does not win the peace.

I hope that somehow we can remember that again.

August 25, 2011

Bad news: “It’s not a boy!”

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 2:56 pm
Tags: ,

Gendercide – the killing of unwanted children only because they are female rather than male – exists on every continent of the world and is increasing in alarming rates especially in places like India and China.

There are many reasons for this, but one is that Western technology has backfired.  Many aid workers thought that making ultrasound scans available would enable parents to have the greatly valued son first, and that  daughters arriving after that would be less in danger of being aborted or abandoned.

It hasn’t happened.  Instead ultrasound scans have been a significant force in increasing China’s current ratio of male/female live births to 124 to 100.  A similar pattern is evolving in India.  Unstopped, China is on its way to having as many unmarried young men as the entire population of young men in America.

Is this so terrible?

Yes.  The effects of a disproportion this huge between marriageable young men and young women are far more destructive than the injustices arising from unequal opportunities in the workplace.

Crime, sexual violence, bride trafficking,  and female suicide are already on the increase.  Increased wars are historically associated with an undue number of males in a society without the maturing commitments to family and children that marriage typically brings.

Can anything be done about this deadly inequality imposed even before birth?

Actually, there is.

China can reverse its one-child policy which has led in some areas of the country to male-female ratios of as high as 200/100.

But this is by no means the only driver of this unnatural skewing.  Nor will economic development alone stop it.  The sex ratio among well-off in India is even more distorted than it is among the poor.

The Economist points out that South Korea has reversed the trend through female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings.

We must find other ways as well in countries that are not yet as rich as South Korea.

Because the entire planet could be changed as drastically by a disproportionately high number of young men unable to find wives as by global warming or an economic meltdown.


August 22, 2011

Other People’s Money

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Worries — theotheri @ 3:52 pm

OPM – other people’s money – is at the heart of working capitalism.  That’s why we need banks.  And that is why governments moved heaven and earth in 2008 to keep them from collapsing throughout the western world.

Many of us have benefited from using other people’s money by taking out a mortgage.  Some of us have been able to build businesses with the help of bank loans or other people’s money.

What very few of us have appreciated though is exactly how much business throughout the world has expanded and runs on OPM.  Because the thing about OPM is that it can be used – and even in some sense legally owned – at the same time by 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 different sources.

I take out a mortgage, for instance, with a great deal of other people’s money to buy my house.  I now possess all the rights of a legal owner – I can sell it, I can renovate it, rent it, live in it – as long as I repay a small amount of the mortgage each month.   This is true even though the money that the bank gave me is money depositors have placed for safe keeping with the bank, and which those depositors may, at any given time, legally take back out of the bank.  Meanwhile, the seller of the house, perhaps a builder, to whom the money lent to me by the bank was given, has quite possibly used it as a partial payment to take out a business loan in order to build another house.  And on yet a further development, banks now often package the mortgages and other loans they have made which they sell to investors who then receive part of the interest paid by the people repaying the loans on a monthly basis.  And so on.

In just this small example, the same money is being used simultaneously by at least four different sources.  So well-run, secure banks expand the amount of working capital available to build businesses, to build roads and houses and schools, to fund everything from care homes to wars and space exploration.

Banks all over the world operate on the assumption that not all its depositors will want all their money back at the same time.  If they do, there is a run on the bank and they eventually collapse.   Economies can withstand the isolated collapse of even a very big international bank.  But the widespread collapse of banks will destroy functioning capitalism.

Because although we each individually – if we are lucky –  may still have our jobs, the major multiplier of money will have become defunct.   And actually, many of us may not even be able to hold onto our jobs.  Look at how many jobs have been lost to the building industry, for instance, because it is so much harder for people to get a mortgage than it was five years ago.  And then job losses cascade like rows of falling dominoes.

That’s why, however much one may hate the greediness of the bankers and wish them no good at all, we cannot let those banks go to the wall.

That is part of the explanation for the answer given by Nouriel Roubini, the  economist who was one of the few to predict the banking collapse three years ago, when he was asked if capitalism was doomed.  “Possibly,”  he said.

August 12, 2011

The best and the worst in England’s riots

Filed under: The English,Worries — theotheri @ 7:45 pm

Benjamin Disraeli once said “It is much easier to be critical than correct.”

With this in mind, I am reluctant to pontificate too pompously on the causes of the rioting, burning, and looting in English cities.  Some admirable community participation along with a heavy police presence seems to have calmed things down.  (The police, by the way, consulted the police in Los Angeles to ask what they had learned as a result of the Rodney King riots in 1992.)  I think every one is hugely relieved that it has been unnecessary to use the brute force of water cannon or plastic bullets.

We are learning a little bit more about some of the rioters.  More than 1500 arrests have been made, and some courts have now been sitting for 24 hours a day for three days.  That the majority of looters were young unemployed men is not a surprise.  That the riots were not primarily racist is a relief.

What leaves me gobsmacked are the number of arrested who come from privileged backgrounds.  One young woman was arrested as she drove in her BMW through the area being looted  accompanied by two 18 year olds who were filling up the trunk of her car with TVs and other electronics.  Another young woman had been a representative of the Olympics, had been on the Welcoming Committee and met with politicians in high profile appearances.  She was caught on camera throwing stones at a police car saying something to the effect that she’d never had so much fun in her life.  An arrested model is the daughter of a millionnaire.  A twenty-two-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder for beating a 68-year-old man who has since died who was trying to put out a fire started by the looters threatening his house.

But there are other stories that are just the opposite.  A mother and father who were watching the news saw a clip of their adolescent offspring looting a shoe store.   They marched her off to the police station when she got home.  A Black woman stood on the street corner with her cane telling the looters to go home.  Probably most moving of all, the father of a young man who was killed by a hit and run driver yesterday went out onto the street today and addressed the young men gathering.  Go home, he urged them.  You are like my sons, you know what is good and what is bad in your heart.  I beg you, find the good.

These riots, unlike the Rodney King riots in LA, are not primarily motivated by racism, although there have been those who have tried to escalate racist tensions.   It is not clearly an issue of poverty although it may be an issue of materialism gone wild.  It is clearly not all, or even most, young people.  There are those who claim that it is a loss of religious values, and although clearly something has desperately gone wrong with some people’s values, the great majority of people who are no longer church goers or even believers are appalled by the looting and rioting and certainly do not condone it as acceptable behavior.

Obviously I don’t know.  But these riots have shaken the English people.

It is not something that will pass out of national consciousness any time soon.



July 16, 2011

Need to know

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Worries — theotheri @ 3:55 pm

I’m afraid there is a difference between needing to know and wanting to know.  Right now the subject on the top of my Need List does not appear on my Want List.  Except that I have this ghastly feeling that it’s terribly important.

I’d like to say the issue is Rupert Murdoch and the International News Corporation.  But it’s not.  As President Clinton so famously said – “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Yes, stupid I do indeed feel.  But there are three things happening on the economic front right now that in my simple way I fear might be revving up to create the perfect economic storm.

  The first question surrounds the charade going on in the U.S. Congress about raising the debt limit.  It’s a game of chicken par excellance in which the Republican are refusing to raise the U.S. debt limit unless the Democrats agree to cut spending but not increase taxes on the rich.  If they don’t blink, the U.S. will be in technical default in less than two weeks.

I have not always understood just how valuable it is to the U.S. economy that the American dollar is the world’s reserve currency.  But living in a foreign country for 25 years has given me a lot of practical insight into just how much it contributes to our welfare.  If the U.S. defaults, even technically, I fear that a good many more people than the millions of people already suffering from the recession are going to gain the same kind of practical insight.

The second problem, which rivals a potential U.S. default in gravity, is the euro.  First it was Greece, then Ireland, then Portugal.  Now it’s Italy, the size of whose economy dwarfs Greece, Ireland, and Portugal combined, and Spain is also under severe threat.   Each of these countries has a sovereign debt which they simply cannot handle.  It is an acknowledged fact that Greece cannot and never will be able to repay the money it has borrowed.  The country is going to default.  The only question is just what name it is going to be given.

The much more critical question is whether the euro is going to survive the year.  If it doesn’t, the fall-out will be world-wide.  Obviously it will hurt all the countries in the European Union.  It will hurt the U.S. because so much trade is done with Europe.  The repercussions will be global because the European market is even bigger than the U.S. market.

And third, there is the question of the banks.  One might think after the catastrophe of 2008 that the banks would now at least be stable after the giant bail outs they received.  Unfortunately, the results of the stress test of European banks released two days ago suggest that fully 8 European banks would fail in the event of another earthquake – like the break-down of the euro, for instance – and another 16 would be in serious danger of doing so.

I understand enough to know that the world is in an extremely precarious economic position.  Could we plunge into another depression?

If we did, would our globalized world mean that the domino effects would be even worse than the 1930’s depression?

I don’t know enough to know the answers.  I’m not sure anybody knows the answer in this complex world today.

But even knowing the answer isn’t enough.

The really big question is whether we can solve the problem.

March 16, 2011

A longing for black and white

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

I remember as a young adolescent hearing the story about the mother of two young boys who were being trucked away by the Nazis.  “Please!,” she begged, “don’t take them!”  “All right,” the soldier at the back of the truck replied, “you can choose one.”

Simply remembering this story still has the capacity to seer.

It was when I first learned that sometimes there are no right and wrong answers.  They are all wrong.

What is happening in Japan right now is tragic.  But it does not pose a moral dilemma for me.  But what is happening in Libya does.

Should we impose a no-fly zone?  should we put boots on the ground?  if so, under what conditions?  And if Gaddafi does bomb the opposition into oblivion, what should we do?  should we keep buying Libyan oil, for instance?  can we impose sanctions?  should we?

If we don’t buy Libya’s oil, who will suffer?  I suspect the Chinese will buy the oil.  If it forces up the price of oil, who will get rich?  Gaddafi and his people.  Who will suffer?  those people too poor to afford to heat their homes and drive their cars.  Who will go hungry?  Not Gaddafi.  Probably the rebels and anybody remotely associated with them.

And yet if we impose a no-fly zone, will we get embroiled in Africa and the Middle East even further?  Haven’t we already demonstrated amply enough that we cannot march into countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and impose peace, let alone support a functioning democratic and accountable government?

We will make a choice.  We must make a choice one way or other.  Even to do nothing is to choose.

But I think the choice is black and white only for those who cannot see the tortuous, complex reality as it truly is.  “Choose one,” feels like the offer from hell.

March 12, 2011

The earthquake next door

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Uncategorized,Worries — theotheri @ 3:49 pm

One of the things I find so devastating about the earthquake and tsunamis that are currently hitting Japan is that Japan was prepared.  Japan is not littered with sub-standard buildings and slums clinging to mountain sides.  It is a modern society that has taken the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis seriously.  Its buildings are constructed to withstand earthquakes,  its sea walls to defend against tsunamis.

And yet thousands of people – probably tens of thousands of people – are dead.  Entire villages have been swept away by the raging waters,  whole trains travelling along the east coast are now missing, boats have disappeared in the whirlpools, millions are without water and electricity, hundreds of thousands are in shelters.  The damage has been felt half way around the world.

Gone: The same scene just moments later shows how the entire residential area of dozens of homes is completely obliterated by the unforgiving waters which swept away anything in their path

Click to see more photographs from the Daily Mail

And now the nuclear reactor along the coast has exploded, the consequences of which are not yet known.  It will be a powerful weapon for the Greens to use against building more nuclear plants.  Japans nuclear plants are not second-rate.   But it was vulnerable and the damage of escaping radioactive cloud may yet be immense.

The terrifying thing is that not only could it have been worse.  It could still get worse with after-shocks that are powerful enough to trigger more tsunamis and collapse more buildings.

Could something this destructive happen in the United States?  Yes.  The west coast is particularly vulnerable but there are the fault lines of tectonic plates on both the east and west coasts.

We call her Mother Earth.  But sometimes she is Medea, murdering her children in cold revenge at her betrayal.

March 1, 2011

Morality in the hands of government

I said in my post yesterday that I certainly would not want to hand over the power to dictate moral decisions to governments.  For thousands of years governments have hijacked God and tried to use religion to stay in power.

The struggle, unfortunately, continues even in America.  The South Dakota legislature are considering a bill that would legalize the killing of abortion doctors on the grounds that these doctors are endangering the lives of innocent victims.  The legislation proposes to change the definition of murder in the case of someone murdering a doctor who performs abortion.  Instead of calling it murder, killing abortion doctors would be categorized as justifiable homicide.

At least we have a Constitution and a Supreme Court.  I agree it is by no means a fail-safe way of keeping religion and state separate.  But it’s a lot better than nothing.

February 23, 2011

The challenge of civilizations’ survival

I started asking the question after reading Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee:  The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal some years ago.  The question of just how often climate change has contributed to the collapse of civilizations continues to lurk in my consciousness.

It isn’t an easy a question to answer, mostly because it often isn’t climate change that leads to the collapse of civilizations but its accumulated effects.  Civilizations that are not destroyed by volcanic eruptions or earth quakes most often have collapsed as a result of  disease and tribal warfare arising from insufficient supplies of water and food, which may be exacerbated or even caused by climate change, but also have other causes.

There is, however, a frequent pattern of civilization collapse appearing as far as 7,000 years ago.  Civilizations prosper, populations increase dramatically, cities emerge with highly sophisticated systems of trade and specialized roles.   And then the climate changes.  Most often the most debilitating changes seem to have been extreme drought.  Mayan cities were abandoned  in the 9th century after 200 years of drought.  So did the Mesopotamian civilization three and a half thousand years ago, and Egypt collapsed following severe drought in 2300 BC.

But flooding and extreme cold also result from climate change.  The story about Noah’s and his arc is about flooding.  An ice age ended the Viking dominance in Greenland in 13-1400 AD.

The list goes on.

The question for the human population today is just how devastating the climate change we are currently facing might be.  In this last year flooding has displaced millions of people and destroyed crops from Pakistan,  Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Australia.  Drought has possibly destroyed so much of China’s grain this season that it may be driven to importing it for the first time, and the encroaching desert underlies many of Africa’s wars.

The human population has doubled in less than fifty years, and continues to grow, though at a slower pace.  Last month, scientists with the United Nations warned that in less than 20 years the world would have insufficient food and water unless we begin to take action now.  It’s impossible to imagine this won’t lead to increased war, disease, starvation, displacements, and immense suffering.

Will we survive?  Will we destroy Earth’s ability to sustain us?  Will we simply starve?

The pessimistic answer always somehow sounds like the braver, wiser response.  Optimism so often seems to spring from ignorance or simply naive fear of facing the awful impending reality.

But personally, I think we will survive.  Along with the greed and selfishness and arrogant stupidity that plagues our species, I see also incredible ingenuity, bravery, and creativity.  I see  love and determination.  I think we have a willingness to cooperate and share on a global scale.

It is a challenge.  It is a great challenge.  In fact, it is a very very great challenge, and we won’t achieve it easily.  The cost, in the best scenario, will be great.

But I am hopeful that the end of Homo sapiens is not yet in sight.

February 17, 2011

Food or freedom?

Following the successful overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt the western media continue to report demonstrations and unrest throughout much of the Middle East.  The commentators and politicians often suggest that the primary demand is for freedom and democracy, but my own hunch is that these demonstrations are also being driven for  something just as essential – food.

In country after country, the ruling elite have amassed fortunes, while the quality of life for millions has not improved.  Now they are dangerously at the edge.  Food prices and unemployment are ballooning for not only the poorest but for the educated middle classes.

I’m not sure that the internet and social networks alone can bring about a revolution.  I’m not sure revolutions cannot still be stopped if the military is determined to attack its own people.  And I’m not sure that a desire for freedom alone will sustain a revolution for long enough and among large enough numbers to succeed.

None of us, after all, have absolute freedom.  It’s not just the constraints of physical existence that limit us.  It is often the laws and customs and constraints of society.  Only we don’t most of the time tend to think of these constraints as impinging on our basic freedoms as human beings.  We agree with many of these customs and constraints and are outraged when criminals and psychopaths violate them.  And if we get angry enough, we can toss out one government after several years, and if we don’t like the next one, we can vote it out too.  But mostly we have enough to eat.

I think the fight for freedom that is going on in the streets and squares of the Middle East today is real and significant.  And I agree that we don’t live by bread alone.

But we don’t live without bread either.  As the American revolutionaries knew during the War of Independence against the British, even taxing tea so that the common man cannot afford it is more than the human spirit will bear.

Which is why I think today’s demonstrations are motivated by the need for both food and freedom.

It may also point to a reason why the global environmental change we are experiencing might be more destructive than most people expect.

January 29, 2011

Egypt isn’t as far away as it used to be

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:58 pm

I don’t think I’m any better informed than usual in relation to events in Egypt but I am much more concerned than usual.  The news channels have been reporting live from Egyptian cities and the millions of demonstrators who have been on the streets for the last four days.  Reports tonight are that Mubarak’s’ two sons have just arrived here in London.

I cannot help but hope that the demonstrators are successful in overthrowing the present regime, and I am very glad the Obama administration has made it clear that the financial implications would be severe if the army started to fire on the demonstrators.

But Egypt has been under the heel of a dictatorship for almost 50 years, and under Mubarak’s dictatorship for 38.  There isn’t a government in waiting.  The newscasters here say here that the Islamists do not represent the views of the majority of Egyptians who want an authentically functioning democracy.

But as we have seen repeatedly, functioning democracies take more than a free vote to work.

And then there’s the even bigger question of other governments in the area.  Mubarak had Washington’s support because he was a cornerstone in supporting America’s peace plan for the Palestinians in Gaza.  What will happen with Mubarak gone?  And will the other dictatorships in the region be vulnerable if Egyptian protestors are successful?  There are demonstrators already in Yemen and Jordan.  Unemployment is high throughout the region and people are getting poorer.

I think we could be seeing a change as significant and wide-sweeping as the one that took place in Eastern Europe after the fall of Russian Communism.

But the implications for the United States may be felt more deeply.  What will we do if Israel uses its nuclear weapons in the region?  What will be the implications if oil shipments, many of which go through Egypt’s Suez Canal, are interrupted?  What will we do if Pakistan decides to use its nuclear weapons?

The Bible says that two thousand years ago Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled into Egypt to escape Harrod.

But today I fear there is no place to flee.

August 25, 2010

National insanity

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:38 pm

I cannot believe — no, I’m afraid I can believe.  So let me begin again.

I cannot fathom how any one in the United States can seriously think that bombing Iran is anything but an insane idea.

Have we learned nothing from Iraq?  from Afghanistan?  from Lebanon?  from Vietnam?  Do we still think we can win hearts and minds with bombs?  and do we still think we can win a war without the hearts and minds of the people?

August 9, 2010

Floods in Pakistan

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 8:17 pm

I was surprised – very surprised, actually – when an American friend told me today that the current floods in Pakistan are not front line news in the States.

No, I’m not just surprised.  I’m astonished.  16 million people are homeless and the floods are still getting worse as the water rushes down the length of the country.  The UN says that already the current  humanitarian crisis is effecting more than the combined total of those hit by the Christmas tsunami in south-east Asia, the Haiti earthquake, and the Kashmir earthquakes.

The country’s bread basket is devastated, meaning that the current immediate food crisis is going to last for years.  Thousands of villages have been destroyed and the great fear is that water-borne disease like cholera and typhoid are going to become epidemics.

Meanwhile the government can’t cope, and millions of people (can you imagine this?  millions of people) have received no help whatsoever, have had no contact with any outside agencies, for more than a week.  Roads are blocked, helicopters can’t even drop food to the stranded except when the rain stops.  The government was already under grave threat from the Taliban, who are now handing out food and medical aid to the desperate in hundreds of locations.  They say they have no political agenda.  Yes: well…

Even if the people of United States were indifferent to this kind of human suffering – and I can’t believe we are – our own security is threatened by this catastrophe.  If it brings down a weakened government, it will be replaced by the mullahs, who will then have control of the nuclear weapons which Pakistan as developed.  That’s the biggest reason we are trying so hard to prop up the current Pakistani government even while with its other hand, it is aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The rains which are causing the floods in Pakistan belong to the same weather system that brought on the mud slides in China two days ago and created the heat wave in Moscow which is now responsible for doubling the death rate in the city.

Don’t you think it should be in the news big time?  It’s been the top story here in England for more than a week.

June 12, 2010

Killing by remote control

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:51 pm

I was horrified to read yesterday that state officials in Arizona and Texas are asking the Federal Aviation Authority to authorize the use of drones to monitor their borders with Mexico.

Border patrol agents have just shot and killed a 15-year-old Mexican boy who was throwing stones that could have “done serious damage.”

Now we want to monitor our borders with drones.  We are already using them in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and Yemen with whom we are not at war, and now we want to use them in Mexico.

What is happening to us?

Have we gone absolutely mad?

June 9, 2010

New life in a petri dish

Filed under: Questions beyond Science,Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 8:24 pm

About two weeks ago scientists made a mind-boggling announcement:

From its component chemicals, they have created a new living, self-sustaining organism.

I am not surprised that it is possible and that it has happened in my life time.  But that does not preclude my being awe-struck.

I think it is an event that in its potential import outstrips the splitting of the atom.  The scientists are trying to pretend that the implications are not almost incomprehensible, saying only that the potential for good is immense.

Yes, of course it is.  We may be able to generate bacteria that can reduce much of our self-created pollution of the environment.  We may be able to cure many diseases that are currently untreatable.  We may be able to solve our energy and food and clean water shortages.

But to the extent that we figure out how to do these things, we will also, per force, learn how to poison the environment, we will be able to develop deadlier weapons of war than anything we have conceived of so far, we will have the tools for spreading terror that may be unstoppable.

And then there is the inevitable danger of accidents.  Organisms can escape or mutate and spread beyond our control.

It can’t happen?

No, a nuclear accident like Chernobyl couldn’t happen either.

Neither could the oil “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico that may still be spewing not 5,00o barrels of oil a day but 100,000, and may make not only the Gulf a dead zone, but may spread up the US east coast and into the open seas.

So it’s marvellous, and it’s scary that we can now create new forms of life in the laboratory.

Yet in one way, things really aren’t so different from the way they have always been.  Only the nature of the danger changes, not the fact of danger.  I grew up in a generation that build nuclear bunkers in their back yards.  For millenia, people have lived in dread of starvation, of plagues and disease, natural disasters and climate change.

I wish I had something wiser to say about it than that.  But I don’t.

I’ll just keep hoping that our generosity and our ingenuity outstrips the stupidity of our mistakes, and a fear of our enemies that could destroy us all.

May 15, 2010

Schrödinger’s cat and me

Filed under: Just Stuff,Uncategorized,Worries — theotheri @ 8:39 pm

The comment following yesterday’s post alluded to a problem in quantum physics concerning Schrödinger’s cat.  Without going into the why’s of this problem which I only vaguely grasp, the problem it poses is whether a cat in a box is alive or dead if nobody has looked in the box.  In other words, it suggests the cat’s existence depends on someone else knowing about it.

My understanding is that this problem has been solved to the satisfaction of those scientists who understand it in favour of the cat existing independently of our looking in the box.

Which is reassuring to those scientists and cat lovers who have been worrying about it.

But now our almost-instantaneous global communications systems are creating a parallel worry for me.  When I read comments posted on Twitter and Facebook and other social networking sites, I wonder sometimes if some people’s identity depends on someone else knowing that they are alive at that instance.

I mean, do I really need someone else to know that “I’m eating chocolate ice cream in Central Park?”  or that “I’m downloading Explorer 8 onto my computer right now”?  “Long day, dead tired, having a drink,” or “L has walked out;  I can’t stop crying”?

Do I only matter if somebody else knows? does what I am doing increase in importance if the whole world is told about it?

I find it a little scary.

I deactivated my Facebook account yesterday.  I’d delete it altogether but they keep telling me I’ll always be welcomed back.


May 5, 2010

Just another ordinary chaotic day in the world

Sitting here in my little corner of England, I have tried not to make this blog a commentary on international affairs.  But right now three very big events are unfolding simultaneously that I think might have momentous results.

The closest to home is the British election tomorrow.  Four weeks ago the result looked like a foregone conclusion, but tonight the polls are suggesting that it will be a three-way nobody-wins outright outcome leading to a hung parliament.  The bond and currency markets are staying open all night on Thursday, because nobody knows how the markets will react.  Some analysts are predicting that if there’s no clear government identified by Friday afternoon, the value of the British currency will plummet and bond rates will inflate, quite possibly rocketing Britain with an unsustainable deficit, dashing the economy, and creating rampant inflation.

(I personally agree with analysts who think it will take a little longer than 24 hours for a crash like this to happen, but if there’s still no sign of a stable government grappling with the deficit within a week or ten days, the bottom will almost certainly begin to fall out.)

Which gets us to Greece.  The rioting on the streets again today in Greece, including the torching of a bank that killed three people trapped inside, is not a local matter.  Portugal, Spain, Italy, and possibly Britain, could find themselves in a similar situation, and it could tear Europe apart.  In the worst case scenario, riots and serious civil unrest could spread across the continent, the euro (Europe’s single currency used by 15 European countries) could implode, and Europe fall into a deep economic depression.

This would have grave effects way beyond Europe, including making it much harder for America to continue to pull out of recession and pay down our deficit.

The third event with potentially world-wide effects is the oil leak in the Gulf.  It’s already obvious that the environmental damage is going to be huge.  We just don’t know how huge.

But since most of the world’s oil is now being accessed through underwater wells, this accident is going to increase the cost of oil, and reduce its availability.  The one good effect of this catastrophe might be that green technology gets a bigger boost than all the warnings of global warming could produce.

Whatever else, I can’t see how anyone finds life boring.  Scary, maybe.  Infuriating often.  But not boring.

April 28, 2010

How bad would it have to get?

A friend who is facing serious eye surgery about which her surgeon has some doubts told me that if she goes blind, she will end her life – that it would not be worth living if she had to be taken care of in such a total way.

I was a bit shocked.  I admit one of the recent traumas of my life was related to how I would cope if my cataract surgery failed on the single eye with which I can read.  I wondered where I would gather the strength of character to live with such a profound deprivation, but the thought of suicide didn’t even occur to me.

Yet I began to wonder just how bad it would have to be for me to prefer to be dead than alive.  Intense pain as the result of a terminal condition has always seemed sufficient cause to me.  Or to attempt suicide, as a doctor I know imprisoned in Hungary during the revolution, did in order to prevent authorities from torturing his wife and children in the attempt to extract information from him.  Being completely bedridden in itself would not be sufficient, but if it also involved an inability to speak, hear, or read, it might be more than I could take.  But then I probably would not be able to commit suicide under those conditions.

All of this, believe it or not, actually began as a reverie, despite everything that can and does go wrong, how wonderful it is to be alive.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister who is running for re-election, was caught on a live microphone today expressing disgust about a voter with whom he had just had an apparently successful conversation and with whom he had parted with a warm farewell and an arm around her shoulder.

The press are having a field day.  The woman herself was profoundly shocked at being called a bigot, and is now being pursued by the media to tell her story.  Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is driving up and down the country in an attempt to apologize.  Some people believe him.

Greece is probably going bankrupt and the only people in a position to bail them out are the Germans who are reluctant to bail out a country which has not only been profligate and irresponsible, but lied about the country’s finances until last fall.

The Greeks are rioting on the streets at threatened cuts.  The markets are worried that the debt problem could bring down Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and even Britain.

I worry about the United States’ deficit if this triggers a world-wide depression.

As I was saying, it’s wonderful to be alive.

April 26, 2010

A hide and seek worth losing

Filed under: Uncategorized,Worries — theotheri @ 7:27 pm

Like most people, I have a stock-pile of things to worry about – Darfur, Afghanistan, the Tea Party brigade, whether my pension will last as long as I do, global warming, saving the whale, chimpanzees, women and children labelled as witches spring to mind as I shuffle along the very long list.

But when the pile begins to look depleted, I have a new worry:  aliens.

For decades, there have been people analyzing radio signals for possible messages.  And there are all those UFO sightings that have never been fully accounted for, along with a number of apparently fringe reports from people who claim they were kidnapped by aliens.

Okay, but now the search for extra-terrestrial life is getting serious, and a few sensible and highly intelligent voices are suggesting that finding them might not be in our best interest.

I tend to agree.

If you are one of those people who has ever gone into a blind panic at the sight of a mouse scurrying into a corner of the room, or has ever killed a spider or a bee out of uncontrolled fear of being bitten, or whose heart is not strong enough to sustain close contact with a snake, you might understand my point.  First, I think our first impulse would be to try to imprison and eventually kill any foreign form of life that got into our orbit, even if it is as small as a single-celled bacteria.

That, however, might be the more benign danger.  What if, instead, this life is more intelligent than we are?  And what if they respond to life with the same colonialism as we have?  If we’re lucky we could be turned into slaves.  If less lucky, we could be slaughtered for Sunday’s roast.

No, I think we should be very careful about what we’re looking for.  And hope that nobody finds us, either.

February 15, 2010

You have just won $100 million –

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 3:03 pm

My brain is still too influenced by a flu-high for me to attempt to say anything that might be mistaken for serious thought.

But I feel I’m in exactly the right state of mind to try to imagine what the young couple here in England must have felt like when they turned on their computer and found the message that they’d just won about 100 million dollars on the lottery.  They are now among the 100 richest people in the country.

I can’t pretend there would be any chance I’d turn it down if a similar fortune showed up on my computer screen.  Though my first thought would be to report the email as scam and trash it.

After I spent the first couple of million on purely selfish pursuits for myself and everybody I love, I think I’d try to set up a school for girls in a country where they don’t have the normal access to the basic educational opportunities we take for granted.

Would a hundred million $ be enough?  I guess I could ask Oprah Winfrey.  That’s what she’s trying to do.

On the other hand, perhaps contacting Oprah can wait.  I haven’t bought the lottery ticket yet.

January 26, 2010

Why do abused children become abusers?

Filed under: Abuse,Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 8:34 pm

Right now the news here in England is reporting a spate of extraordinarily painful revelations about child abuse, including some almost unbelievable stories of children as young as ten who have become vicious abusers themselves.

On first thought, one would think that people who had themselves been abused would be more sensitive, not less, to the pain and damage abuse inflicts.  Once in a while this happens, but more often than not, children who are abused themselves grow up to be abusers.


I think there are three reasons, two psychological and one bio-chemical.

Children who are abused by their caretakers, especially by one of their parents, often convince themselves that they deserve it.  They are abused, they believe — or at least partly believe it – because they are bad.  Awful as this conclusion is for a child, it is less terrifying than believing that it is their parent who is a bad person who does not love them.  Because then the child is absolutely alone, vulnerable and helpless in a terrifying world in which they have no protection, no place to lie down, no food, no guidance.  It is less hopeless for the child to believe that by being a better person he can do something to make things better.  They tell themselves that they are abused because their parent or caretaker loves them and are trying to teach them to be better.

An abused child also grows up to be an abuser because he or she has been taught that it is the bigger bully who gets what he or she wants.  He doesn’t learn from being abused not to abuse.  Just the opposite:  he learns that the abuser is the one people give into;  the abuser is the one who gets what he wants by sheer threat.  So he learns how to be a bigger bully than those around him or her.

And lastly, abused children often have not been given the opportunity to put themselves in another person’s place, to learn to understand what it must feel like to be in somebody else’s position.  There is some evidence that this is not only a psychological difficulty, but is actually reflected in stunted neuro-physiological development.

So I think the judge who looked at a young man convicted today of torturing a darling two-year-old toddler and said he was the epitome of evil was wrong.  I think he was almost certainly an abused child himself.

January 18, 2010

The globalization of worry

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 9:58 pm

I’ve been thinking about chaos theory and the conclusion that systems are ultimately unpredictable.  I mean, we cannot possibly know how they will evolve.

That’s not necessarily bad news:  not all systems disintegrate into chaotic catastrophe.  The universe is an example.  So is the evolution of life.  The universe has not returned to inchoate chaos.  And life has not only survived but evolved.

But there are lots of little collapses within these larger systems, and some of them reflect major disintegration.  What is making the results of the earthquake in Haiti right now so agonizingly terrible is that so many of the systems have disintegrated.

What has begun to scare me about globalization is that our systems are becoming global too.  We barely escaped a global collapse of the world’s entire financial system last year.  That was followed by a food scare that gave us a glimpse of what would happen if our global system of food production and trade collapsed.

Climate change could lead to the worse system collapse of all.  Well, for us anyway.  The universe will go on;  life of some sort may very well go on even on earth.  But if Homo sapiens is wiped out, that would qualify, I think, as a pretty big collapse.

Though none of us would be around to know about it.

January 14, 2010

The monumental size of Haiti’s losses

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 10:30 pm

I’ve been trying to get my head around the disaster that is being conveyed by the media since the earthquake in Haiti.

There are about ten million people living in Haiti.

After the earthquake, there are about three million people without homes, and everything that goes with that – a reliable supply of food, water, a place to sleep, etc.  That’s almost 1 person out of every 3 in all of Haiti

But the figure I find the most wrenching is that current estimates are that perhaps 50,000 people have already died as a result of the earthquake.

I did the mathematics three times before I convinced myself that really is 1 out of every 200 people living in the entire country.

Who knows how many more will died of disease and starvation?

Maybe that’s what Obama meant when he said it was “incomprehensible.”

October 20, 2009

Getting out of the war zones

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 1:49 pm

It’s not that I don’t think, read, and worry about this all the time.  I do.  I lived through the Vietnam War and I know what it was like for America to be fighting an unwinnable war.  But I don’t know how we are going to get our troops out of Afghanistan.

The argument the government made for pursuing the Vietnam war was based on the Domino Effect:  if Vietnam falls to Communism, so will Cambodia and Laos and Thailand and India and the Middle East and Turkey and …  Well, Vietnam did “fall” to Communism but the dominoes didn’t all tumble.

The question in Afghanistan that worries me is Pakistan.  Under what conditions can we leave Afghanistan without further destabilizing Pakistan, a country which possesses the nuclear bomb?  Could we afford to leave Afghanistan with a strong possibility that a civil war will break out in Afghanistan and spread to Pakistan?

Let us forget about imposing democracy or equal rights as we understand them.  Let us forget about nation building and wiping out the opium crops.

Can we even prevent a full-blown civil war whether or not we leave?  Right now, the fighting in Afghanistan is called “an insurgency.”  There has been a highly dubious “democratic” election with a government still in place that is almost universally recognized as corrupt.  It looks to me like a fine line between the current situation and civil war.

What are we doing there?

More critically, how can we get out?  General McCrystal says we needs 40-60,000 more troops before there is even a chance of stabilizing the country so we can leave.

This sounds an awful lot like a Vietnam-type argument to me.

Meanwhile, the process of trying to bring about some kind of progress in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have taken a significant step backwards, and Iran is blaming the US and Britain for the latest assassinations of members of the Revolutionary Guards.

The world needs more Out-of-the-Box thinking that I’ve been remotely capable of coming up with.

I sure hope Obama and his advisers are better at it than I am.

But it looks to me as if things could get a lot worse and a lot closer to home ground for a long time to come.

September 27, 2009

x 3

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 3:44 pm

I am trying to come to grips with learning that there are now 3 times as many people living on earth today than there were 50 years ago.

3 times!

August 19, 2009

Living close to the edge

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 2:36 pm

Construction workers in Yorkshire today uncovered an unexploded 500 lb bomb dropped during World War II.

Explosive experts evacuated two villages before carrying out a controlled explosion, and nobody was hurt.

Maybe this kind of experience is why WWII seems so much closer here in England.  And possibly why serious doubts about the Afghan war are coming so strongly to the surface.  Our neighbour, a retired military officer, told us that on the walls of many Officers’ quarters there are tributes in memory of the first Afghan war.  And the second.  And the third.  None of which resulted in a British victory.  And the Russians didn’t win there either.

There is not the kind of hostility to the military that I remember greeting the veterans returning to the States from Vietnam in the 1960’s.  In fact, right now, day after day after day, people turn out on the streets to pay silent homage as the coffins of the recent war dead are carried to their final resting places.

But there is worry that this Afghan war is another Vietnam.

I wish we weren’t there.  I don’t think it is making Britain or America any safer.  In fact, it is perhaps making both countries less safe.  Instead, let’s take the manpower and money and technology and put it into protecting our borders.

And living in peace.

August 11, 2009

Reducing my worry list

Filed under: Political thoughts,The Economy: a Neophyte's View,Worries — theotheri @ 9:01 pm

I can worry about only so many things at a time.  If I let the list get too long, I begin to feel responsible for the world, which is a pretty megalomaniac form of egocentrism.  Clearly none of us were created to make the world a better place single-handedly.  Those who have tried tend to be remembered in history as tyrants.

In these days of global communication, the number of potential items to worry about seems almost limitless.  But since I can’t do everything – in fact, since I can only do very little – I am currently limiting my principal world worries to climate change and to the U.S. getting some sort of universal health coverage passed.

I’ve lived in Britain which has universal health care for ten years, and I have had some of the best medical treatment in the world.  We have the option of private health insurance to increase ourchoices over and above the service provided by the National Health Service.  But no one is reduced to going to Accident and Emergency for routine treatment because they can’t afford to see a doctor.

40 million people  in America, the richest country in the world, though, cannot afford proper health care.  It is, quite obviously to me, a moral scandal.

But in addition, it’s a moral scandal that the United States can no longer afford economically.  We are now competing in a global world.  Companies in almost every other part of the world do not have to provide health insurance as part of their employment package, and this puts American companies at a disadvantage.  It was a significant factor in bringing GM to its knees.

And so I was delighted to hear that on August 19th, liberal-leaning evangelicals, mainline Protestant clergy and Catholic groups are backing Obama’s health care plan.  There will be prayer meets and national television ads, and a call-in program on the Internet in which President Obama will participate.

Apart from contacting my representatives in Congress, I don’t know what else I can do to help to get this bill passed.

But I am hoping madly that it will.

P.S.  I just realized that the credit crunch began two years ago this week.

August 6, 2009

Hiroshima: August 6, 1945

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 4:30 pm

I’ve just found out that this is Hiroshima Day – the day set aside to remember the first nuclear bomb dropped on a city, devastating everyone – men, women, children, civilian and military.  The bomb dropped on Nagasaki followed almost immediately.  The Japanese surrendered without conditions.

It is true that the only nuclear bombs ever dropped on civilian populations were dropped by America to bring World War II to an end.   For more than fifty years, people lived in dread during the Cold War that followed, fearing  that the tensions between Russia and the US would lead to all-out nuclear war.   Several times it almost happened.

I haven’t worried about nuclear war for a long time.  Mostly I’ve worried about pollution and climate change, about terrorism and the methods the US and Britain have used to combat it, about fundamentalism of every stripe, about the disenfranchised and displaced in Africa and the Middle East, about the global economy, about how many times we humans are ignorant or stupid or greedy.

But the nuclear threat hasn’t really gone away.  More countries now have nuclear weapons than ever before – Pakistan, India, Israel, perhaps Iran and North Korea.  The possibility of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons is greater than it has ever been.

And there is the ever present possibility of misinterpretation – a mistaken message, for instance, that another country is attacking us with nuclear arms, to which we respond in kind.

This is one of those worries that turns me into an existentialist.  All we ever know we have for sure is now.  It might be a moment for laughing, or sleeping, or loving.  Maybe a moment for eating or dancing or music.  Maybe for reading or writing or listening, for playing or thanking or brushing my teeth.

Whatever I do with now, I want to do it well.  No, not well, so much as engaged, with fullness, with my whole self.

But perhaps I won’t aspire to be a poet.

June 17, 2009

Not recommended for a down day

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Worries — theotheri @ 9:53 pm

I just read an article that gives a new twist to the pattern of life on this planet for the last 3 billion years or so.

It doesn’t add anything I hadn’t already written about in The Big Bang to Now.  What’s so depressing is the analysis.  The author suggests that the history of earth is a history of life destroying itself.  If it is, then we may be on the verge of doing it once again as human activity seems to be moving toward making Earth uninhabitable for life as we know it.

Earth is not Gaia, the article suggests, the life-giving Mother Earth.  It’s Medea, she who devours her own children.

It seems to me as reasonable a possibility as the more optimistic Gaia alternative.  But it is a little like reading about the Holocaust or Darfur or Sri Lanka or Peru or the latest arrest for child abuse.  The temptation is despair.

It reminds me once again that it’s an act of faith – or hope – to believe that our lives have some ultimate meaning, that this isn’t all one great mechanical hoax taking place on the gigantic scale of the universe.

I personally believe that life and this great mystery of existence does have a meaning.  But it certainly isn’t a conclusion based on irrefutable empirical evidence.  On the other hand, neither is the nihilist conclusion that some believe is supported by science.  It isn’t.  We simply cannot find the answers using the scientific method – valuable as that method may be.

But maybe best not to read article in the New Scientiston a down day anyway.

June 15, 2009

A cool look at global warming

I’ve just come across what is looking like a fantastic book dealing with our energy use and the environment.  By sheer coincidence, it is written by David McKay, a professor here in Cambridge, England, who is a physicist who specializes in computational neuroscience, information theory and machine learning.  Despite these rather terrifying credentials, he talks in everyday English.

The book is Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, and is available to download for free on line at  There’s also a downloadable ten-page synopsis which is as far as I’ve gotten so far but I’m definitely going to read the whole thing.

It’s written in terms of Britain but a lot of the things are universally applicable.   Hydrogen-fuel cell cars, for instance, don’t compare in terms of energy efficiency with electric cars, which was something I didn’t know.

To put things in perspective, it is helpful to know that the population of Britain is 60 million.  The US population is about five times bigger at 300 million.  And “an area twice the size of Wales” is about 10 million acres.

I’m telling you this because I think the book is worth reading.  McKay does not have a political agenda, he didn’t start out deciding to build a case for the greens, or for nuclear energy, or for Obama’s energy policies.  What he wanted to do was to look at our current energy consumption in a developed country like Britain and ask whether Britain could, given the will, develop sufficient alternative energy to replace its dependence on fossil fuel.

In terms of current technology, the answer is unequivocally no.

Britain has enough sun to provide most of the hot water needs for a small family and an unusual reservoir of wave and wind resources that could potentially be harnessed for energy use.

I have not yet read the entire book, but I am already convinced that the conclusion is going to be the same for any developed country, including America, and increasingly so for countries like China, India, and Brazil.

I am eager to see what MacKay proposes.  Just how drastic must be the steps we take if the situation is not going to be wrenched out of our control and solved by an involuntary reduction in human population and quality of life?

As I indicated yesterday, the more I contemplate the frequency of human error, the more nuclear energy frightens me.  Can we develop new technologies fast enough to avoid Armageddon?

I’ll let you know what MacKay thinks as soon as I reach that chapter.

May 17, 2009

It runs deep

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 3:09 pm

We were in a bookstore in Cambridge this morning where I saw a series of children’s books on display titled “Mr. Men and Little Miss.”  I found this mildly annoying as I wondered if this kind of thing was not frowned on in one of the great educational centres of the Western world how women would ever be respected as equals.  Or even learn to respect themselves as equally intelligent and responsible adults.

Then I opened the Sunday papers.   There are reports that the Taliban have been responsible for poisoning the girls in at least three different schools in northern Afghanistan.

It does put things in perspective.

April 26, 2009

Another mega-worry

Filed under: Illness and disease,Worries — theotheri @ 8:33 pm

We’re not even past the credit crunch and the recession, and we already have at least two more mega-worries.  And of course, there are a plethora of mini-worries for the professional worrier.

Following the announcement last week that the Taleban are within striking distance of Islamabad, the capital of nuclear-armed Pakistan, today we have the announcement that swine flu has been exported from Mexico to countries as far away as New Zealand.  And to at least five U.S.  states.  

Swine flu is a hybrid virus with bits from a bird, a swine, and human virus.  The last time a hybrid like this was hatched, the Spanish flu killed 29 million people following World War I.  Worse, young healthy adults, not the elderly and children, seemed to be the most vulnerable.  And today global travel can spread the virus around the world in less than 24 hours.

On the other hand, at this point swine flu is not as deadly as the Spanish flu.  As of this writing, no one outside of Mexico has died from it.  In fact, most have been only mildly ill.  And the world has a stock of anti-viral drugs to combat swine flu should it turn out to be seriously virulent.

So perhaps this is one mega-worry we will be able to discard.  Experts say we should know just what we are dealing with in no more than a couple of weeks.

March 28, 2009

Grapefruit and osteoporosis

Filed under: Osteoporosis,Worries — theotheri @ 3:42 pm

It’s a conundrum.  Research is now suggesting that grapefruit might increase bone health and so reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

Grapefruit is also one of those delights of dieters that requires more calories to burn up than it actually contains.

But research also suggests that grapefruit might be implicated in a slightly increased risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women

I have osteoporosis and two sisters who have had breast cancer.  And will probably die still hoping to lose “just five pounds.”

So I’m going for two grapefruit a week.  More or less.

Life’s decisions are tough.

To see additional posts on osteoporosis, click on “Select Category” in the right-hand column, and select Osteoporosis.

February 19, 2009

Trying to figure out what to worry about

The news here today includes a warning by one of England’s central bankers (equivalent to the Fed in the U.S.) that Britain – and presumably most of the world – could be facing a Japan-style recession.  In other words, a downturn that lasts for a decade.

It is almost certain that already most countries will be facing a debt overhang for at least that long.  But that might be the optimistic result.  The really dreadful possibility is that we could be facing mind-boggling debts and still not have economies that are turning over.

The only consensus I can find among the economists, some of whom might actually understand the problem, is that the worst possible thing we can do is to give into protectionism.  “Buy America,” or “Buy British,” or whatever translation fits the language of your country.  It’s what happened after the depression – America started it with the Snoot-Hawley bill – and it made things much much worse.

So one can only hope that somehow we – and especially America – manages to mostly avoid opening this destructive closed door.

But what if the world does enter into a really prolonged recession/depression?  I doubt that it will signal Armageddon.  But it certainly might lead to increased wars – even major wars very close to home.  Along with political unrest, disease, starvation, violation of human rights, and the rise of totalitarian government.

So I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that.  I’m hoping that all those critics of the stimulus package that finally got through the U.S. Congress are wrong, and that it will dig America out of the mess we’re in.

And if America starts moving – this probably sounds chauvinist, but I believe it is true – the rest of the world will be saved from disaster too.

But it’s still not a certain call.

February 12, 2009

A short list of worries

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

If you are one of those people like me who cheer yourself up by saying “well, it could be worse,” here is a list I cooked this morning.  Not sure it’s having the desired effect.

Catastrophes that would be worse than today’s global financial crisis:

  • we might not have enough water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and growing food.  Forget the swimming pool and golf course.  See California for starters, or Africa for advanced worries.
  • the global food crisis last summer could become endemic.  Land for growing food is being given up to growing bio-fuels, is being dried up by desertification, and being flooded by rising sea levels.  Bee colonies are dying at a terrifying rate around the world, threatening one-third of the world’s food supply.
  • there might be a global epidemic.  The Black plague returned for centuries and on some visits killed as many as 80% of the population.  We already had the flue epidemic in the 1920’s killed perhaps 100 million people.  It hit the young and fit the hardest.  We’ve been hit by AIDS, SARS, and are worried about a Bird Flu epidemic if the virus jumps the species barrier.  Global travel spreads disease much faster than the Black Plague in the middle ages.
  • There are natural disasters that continuously threaten us.  A tsunami like the one that hit Indonesia killed several hundred thousand people in hours.  If the tectonic plates off the east coast of America created a tsunami, people from New York to Washington could be swamped.  
  • Then, of course, there are the occasional meteor strikes that make it to Earth.  The strike 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs that had survived for more than 200,000 million years.  Meteors regularly land on Earth even today, but they usually land in the ocean or in uninhabited places like Siberia.  
  • All over the world we live on top of earthquake and volcanic hot spots.  Yellowstone National Park is built on top of a live volcano that bursts forth all the time.  If it erupted in one of its seriously major explosions, the entire United States would be deluged with volcanic ash, and  would usher in years of unbroken winters around the world.

I think the list is making the potential results of terrorism, war or human accidents look like benign alternatives.

Why did I think this list would cheer me up?  The weird thing is that, although it doesn’t actually cheer me up, it does get me energized.

I think it’s because I think Yes, We Can!


February 9, 2009

The devil and Darwin’s theory

Filed under: Two sides of the question,Worries — theotheri @ 9:34 pm

In the process of looking for more current information on the condition of bees and their precarious state around the world, I stumbled on one of the articles about Darwin’s theory of evolution.  (Darwin was born 200 years ago this year, and published his ground-breaking theory “On the Origin of  Species” exactly 150 years ago, so there’s a lot being written about him just now.)

I was surprised to discover that as late as 2008, close to 40% of the people surveyed in the United States think that evolution is manifestly false.  Another 20% aren’t sure.

Why?  What is so much more terrifying about this theory than the rest of modern scientific thinking?   Concepts of radioactivity, relativity, quantum theory, the infinity of space, invisible atoms, and dark matter are not rejected on anything like this scale.  

Why do so many people believe that if Darwin is right, most religious beliefs must be wrong?

There are several hypotheses to explain this pattern of thinking.  

The problem is obvious for those who believe that Scripture (unlike poetry, Shakespeare, and the parables told by Jesus) must be read literally.  But that constitutes, at most, 25% of the American population.

Another hypothesis is that the theory of Darwin is misunderstood, that people think it necessarily leads to the conclusion that the world is meaningless and without purpose or direction.  This may be so, but it is not intrinsic to Darwin’s theory and not all scientists accept this view.  Some eminent theorists believe that evolution is not governed principally by accident but that there is an essential direction in the unfolding of life as we see it on Earth.

Another possible explanation is that a belief in a personal God involved in the minutiae of our individual lives helps people survive.  In countries where the struggle for security was felt to be the greatest, the acceptance of God and the rejection of evolution go hand in hand.  

In the United States, for instance, basic health care and housing are not assured by the state.  Is it a coincidence that religious belief and active church attendance are lower by a wide margin in Europe than in America?.  Only in Turkey, on the edge of Europe and where social welfare is more precarious, is rejection of Darwin’s theory greater than in America.

I myself find no contradiction between the possibility that there is a God and the theory of evolution.  

Which means that I seriously do not understand something significant about 60% of my fellow Americans.

February 3, 2009

Diabetes of the brain?

Filed under: Growing Old,Worries — theotheri @ 4:53 pm

I’ve never had a particularly good memory, possibly because I never used it much.  When I was growing up, I thought memorizing was generally a fall back to be used only when I couldn’t figure something out, but otherwise ignored.  To my regret, I now know few poems, and an embarrassingly small number of historical dates.

When I reached my fifties, however, forgetting a word, name, or date began to send a shiver down my spine.  What is this was a harbinger of Alzheimer’s disease?

I’m still forgetting words, names, and dates, though I have learned enough to know that this is not necessarily an indicator of some kind of dementia.

Still, I was both delighted and fascinated to learn that researchers at Northwestern University in the States and the University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil have presented some strong evidence that Alzheimer’s may be a form of diabetes of the brain.  If they are right, insulin and other drugs that effectively treat Type II diabetes might also effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Must remember that…

January 8, 2009

Outrage in parenthesis

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 9:53 pm

I tend to live my life the way I write this blog.  I begin to feel burdened and inadequate if I’m uniformly serious or humorous or spend too much time looking backward, so I tend to skip around to balance things out.

People have been reminding me of Suli and Dugo stories, and I was planning on posting another Suli escapade tonight.

But after watching the news tonight, I want at least to register my revulsion at the nature of Israel’s invasion into Gaza.  I’ve had some sympathy with Israel’s position that they cannot sit back indefinitely while rockets are routinely aimed at their villages by a government next door openly committed to Israel’s annihilation.

But Israel’s behavior is barbaric.  Clearly they do not think that the failure of Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” strategy in Iraq applies to them.   3 million civilians are locked into Gaza and are being forcibly prevented by the Israelis from escaping.  Meanwhile, they are starving, dying of thirst and many are in dire need of medical treatment.

I have little respect for Hamas.  But unless the news resports we are getting are wholly distorted, what Israel is doing is far far worse.

January 7, 2009

What I like best about Darwin’s theory

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Worries — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

Charles Darwain was born 200 years ago this year, and 150 years ago he published his theory of evolution through natural selection.  All holy hell has broken lose over it ever since.

The Church of England accepted the theory from the outset, determined not to box itself into the kind of corner the Roman Catholic Church has only managed to extricate itself from in relation to Galileo’s theory that the earth revolved around the sun and was not the center of the universe.

Darwin, of course, carries the shock of being moved from the center of everything to include Homo sapiens.  In other words, to us.   There are those who feel that God’s concern for his creatures cannot sustain this kind of assault, and so reject Darwin’s theory outright on religious grounds.

But it’s what I like best about Darwin’s theory.  What he says is that we humans are not isolated at the top of the mountain all by ourselves.  We are part of the universe.

We belong.

It’s just that the place where we belong is so much bigger than we ever imagined.

January 5, 2009


Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 4:41 pm
Tags: ,

I heard a report recently that bee colonies are dying at an alarming rate here in England, just as they have been dying in America.  

The very fact that the whatever is causing the colony demise is present on both sides of the Atlantic does seem to rule out some of the possible causes.  Genetically-modified plants are not grown here or in Europe, so that is unlikely to be the culprit.  The prime suspect is a virus.  

It is clear from the reduction of honey on our supermarket shelves that the problem is significant.  Only the very expensive and imported brands still seem to be in sufficient supply.

In fact, I read that honey-laundering is taking its place among criminal activities alongside money-laundering. 


December 15, 2008

We are not alone

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 8:48 pm

“I think it would be an extreme act of cruelty to imply that you can have a stress-free Christmas.” 

Nigella Lawson, TV chef on the BBC

December 12, 2008

Fascinated, indifferent, or worried?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 3:35 pm

I have tried out at least three possibilities, and I still can’t decide how to respond to the world’s current financial situation.

Sometimes I find it fascinating, and I have spent hours trying to understand how men and women who were supposed to be among some of the world’s foremost mathematical and financial geniuses could possibly have blindly created such a mess.  I understand a lot more now how it was done, which has given me some opinions about what should be done to keep the global financial system safer for the future. 

Still, it occurs to me that there must be something else to life besides worrying about the arrogance and short-sighted greed of the world’s best brains.

So I have tried indifference.  This approach says nobody knows what’s going to happen, and besides, there is nothing I can do to influence events anyway.  Governments seem to want us to both save money and to spend it, two opposing strategies for the cash flow in this household.  So we are simply trying to do what we think is best for us – whatever that is.

Indifference works for short periods of time, but then, unbidden, Approach Three sets in.

Approach Three is worry.  Worry for millions of people in the world, for social unrest and starvation and increased crime.  And worry for ourselves.  We are not starving and we are not freezing.  We’re not anywhere near it. 

But what if the dollar crashes?  what if China decides to sell some of its huge reservoirs of US treasuries?  They announced shocking trade figures two days ago, indicating a slow down there that nobody saw coming.  China was supposed to be a major engine pulling us out of recession.  Now analysts are talking about depression.  What if the US auto industries go bankrupt in triplicate?  What if oil production is cut, sending the price back up over $100?

How bad can bad really get?

November 28, 2008

Mumbai Why?

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:57 pm
Tags: ,

It isn’t what I want to write – or even think – about.  But the ongoing events of terrorism in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) seem all-encompassing.

Why?   Why do we humans come to believe with such ferocious tenacity that we are called by God to kill all those who do not share our beliefs?  Even at the cost of ones own death?

A short-sighted – very very short-sighted – view of world events and of history might suggest that we analyze the beliefs of Islam.  But very few religions do not have a history of righteous murder.  Today it’s Islamists or African tribes or ethnic groups in the Balkans, but we need not go back a full century to see one of the worst examples in history in Western Europe, and Christians were murdering “unbelievers” under the banner of the crusades a full millennium ago, and then moved on to burning heretics at the stake. 

And it’s not just religion, as some would suggest, that is the problem.  Tyrants and totalitarian governments who have no religious views – Communism, the rule of Saddam Hussein are two contemporary examples of secular creeds that supported mass murder of anyone who opposed them.

We must learn to let people disagree, or we shall destroy the human species.  America thought it had found the answer with democracy.

But we have learned that, even for us, we find it hard to let other countries disagree with our exalted principles.  In fact, we often can’t even let our fellow Americans disagree without calling them unpatriotic.

November 15, 2008

The Great Conflagration

Filed under: Political thoughts,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

The best term I’ve heard so far to describe our global financial meltdown is “The Great Conflagration,” a term thought up by the economist Thomas F. Cooley.

Okay, so we now have a good name for it.  How do we put the fire out?  or rather, I suppose, get it under control?  Cooley and another economist, Lee Ohanian from UCLA have a scary article in Newsweek ( about the effects of implementing the kind of populist approach we tried after the depression.

I can share the desire for justice and revenge with an urgency that drives me out onto the street with my placard and warm sweater for a night in a police cell.  But I do not think poverty will be reduced nor justice served by:

  • imposing heavy taxes on the rich and redistributing it to the poor.  Britain tried it for twenty years.  Their economy didn’t start growing against until they reversed the inevitable brain drain and lack of innovative motivation the policy stoked.
  • giving excessive powers to labor unions.  The US tried it during the depression and as a result kept unemployment above the 10% figure for a decade.  Only the labor shortages resulting from WWII finally increased the rate of employment
  • subsidizing some industries at the cost of others.  Our subsidies for farmers, and especially for growing corn, has both distorted the market and undercut profitability for farmers in the underdeveloped world, and has led to a huge increase of less healthy food in American supermarkets. 
  • imposing trade restrictions and self-serving tariffs.  India, a country rich in natural resources and abundant labor, tried it.  After 50 years of trying, they decided it wasn’t working, so they drastically reduced government controls.  The economy hasn’t stopped growing ever since and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted above the poverty level.

Well, I’m pretty sure I think I know what the wrong answers to The Great Conflagration are now.

I wish I were as sure about the right answers.  My back-up position is to hope that Obama knows what he’s doing.

November 9, 2008

Can Obama dig us out of this?

Far be it from me to tell Obama how to fix the global economy.  If he can do it, he can do it in whatever way that works.  But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what he said he would do, and wondering what I think about it.  I’m rather surprised to find myself thinking – in my amateur way –  that he might be proposing some surprising solutions.  From what I’ve been reading, here are five possibilities Obama might implement:

  • Provide universal health insurance.  Presently, health insurance is mostly provided by employers, and though it was big business that stopped Hillary Clinton’s health care plan, business is now staggering under health care costs that are rising faster than inflation.  GM says it adds about $4000 to the cost of each car it makes.   Universal health insurance regardless of employment will not only provide what has been a scandalous gap in our care for the poor.  It will free workers to change jobs without fear of losing their health insurance.  And it will help business.  Done right, it could be a win, win, win situation.
  • Repair our country’s infrastructure, including our roads and electricity grid.  Apparently our highways and bridges are in desperate need of repair.  Fixing them will not only be good for our transportation system.  It will provide urgently needed jobs.  The electricity grid is antiquated and lacks integration.  Updating it will also provide jobs, and just as importantly, make it possible to send green electricity to larger areas.  Electricity provided by wind, wave, and geothermal sources would reduce our dependence on oil as well as our carbon footprint.
  • Support property prices.  I’ve read three different proposals about how to do this.  One possibility is to legislate an automatic reduction in mortgage loans for any property that has dropped at least 20% in value so that mortgages are never higher than the real value of the property.  Lenders in turn would share in future price gains.  The benefit would be that owners would not be required to move when they dive into negative equity, and whole neighbourhoods would not be blighted as house after house is foreclosed for increasingly less values.  Banks would also find that fewer people default on their loans.
  • Increase state and local government aid.   This would help a lot of people through desperate circumstances and would help a lot of people keep their jobs doing all those things people need their local and state governments to keep doing.
  • Get out of Iran, and support the Middle East peace process between Israel and Palestine.  (The benefits here are too obvious to elaborate.)

 Okay, maybe it won’t work.  But to an economic neophyte like me, it sounds like it’s worth a try.

PS:  I read that some Democratic senators are talking about a $300 billion stimulus package.  I’d love to get a tax rebate, but in all fairness, I think it might be more effective to spend it on health insurance and mortgage relief.

I don’t, by nature, like big government.  But right now, I think some kinds of big government could help create the kind of world I would like to live in.

November 4, 2008

This is a nightmare I prepared earlier

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 2:14 pm
Tags: ,

Most of my friends in graduate school during the Vietnam War were, like me, against the war.  We marched and protested and participated in sit-ins.  We felt immensely virtuous, and quite superior to the older generation whether they were comfortably – we thought – politicians in Washington, on the faculty of our colleges and universities, or the parental figures in our own homes. 

Our general lack of respect for most of those in authority became, for some, a lack of respect for authority, period.  So one fellow student returned from lunch break one day having been to the supermarket where he’d bought (and paid for) a bottle of coke, and “liberated” a t-bone steak for his evening meal.  It was justified, he said.  “They’re part of the industrial military complex.”  A another colleague who was working on a research project for which we were both being paid was open about the fact that he was “supplementing” his income with unemployment insurance. 

Of course, this kind of cheating occurs in any society in every age.  What was unique about instances like these is that they were being committed by people who under other circumstances would not have done it, with a rationalization for their behavior that somehow justified it for them as a behavior that was actually highly ethical.

My concern on this election day is that if McCain wins, in the light of the last 106 polls that show Obama ahead, many people will suspect that voting machines have been tampered with, and that many voters have been denied a valid vote due to illegally imposed restrictions on eligibility.  A lot of people already think the elections of 2000 and 2004 were stolen.  But the result of suspicions of fraud would be much worse this time. 

This time, the level of commitment and enthusiasm for Obama has energized the young and many who until now have been alienated.  It is not the rioting on the streets tomorrow morning that I fear.  That could happen.  But what I would fear more is that all those people newly-engaged in the electoral process will withdraw in cynicism and distrust.  But America badly needs their energy, their willingness to sacrifice and ability to innovate.

Their loss of faith in the system would be disastrous for America.

Maybe it won’t happen.  I’m even telling myself that probably it won’t happen.  In less than 24 hours we will know.

August 27, 2008

I’m not weird…

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 5:11 pm

We have house guests for a couple of days, which is why we were in Cambridge today, and where I saw the t-shirt saying “I’m not weird;  just smart.” 

It’s also why this is a very short post. I want to get back to the analyses of Clinton’s speech last night and its effects on the polls.  For myself, I thought the line “were you in this just for me?” was pretty powerful.  Though I’m not a politician, and maybe most of Clinton’s supporters who say they are switching to McCain instead of Obama won’t be convinced.

I sent in my request for an absentee ballot yesterday.  I wanted to vote in Ohio, a swing state where I thought my single vote might make a bigger difference, but the rule is that I have to vote in the state where I was last resident.  I doubt Obama will need my vote in New York but every little bit helps, I suppose.  And at least nobody else has more than one vote either.

I live in dread.  But also hope.

August 22, 2008

Trying to think about the possibility of asking for more

Filed under: Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 8:34 pm

I’ve just read that Obama is now behind McCain in the polls.

I can barely let myself become fully conscious of the terrible possibility that after Iraq, after Katrina, after Abu Graib and Guantanamo, after the economic disaster created by our current President’s policies, Americans might still put a Republican back in the White House.

August 2, 2008

Hopeful possibilities

A lot of us have a lot of good things happen to us in our personal lives – a new grandchild, a promotion at work, a partner who is loving and fun and almost everything else one wants, a win by one’s hometown team.  But in the world at large, it seems we stumble from bad news to the ghastly, to the fearsome, and back again to the merely bad.

It is a wonderful and rare thing to find something hopeful in the world out there, and today I found a whole handful of them:

I asked my economist nephew if he thought the collapse of Doha trade talks was as catastrophic as I feared and that the media says it is.  He referred me to an eonomist who says the potential damage is greatly exaggerated.

The cause of bee colony collapse that has been puzzling scientists and worrying farmers as it becomes increasingly dire may be solved.  France and Germany have both outlawed the use of two kinds of pesticides that they believe are the cause.  America, which has the worst collapse, has not yet acted.  (

A double dose of hope for HIV and Alzheimer sufferers.  Doctors in Houston, Texas, may have found a cure (yes, they think it might be an actual cure) for HIV.  Human trials have to be carried out yet, though.  (  And scientists in Scotland are reporting that they may have found a way to attack Alzheimer’s disease that is 80% more effective than anything else tried so far.  (

Scientists in Sheffield, England, may have found a clean, inexpensive way to produce hydrogen for fuel cells at home that will run our cars.

Oh, and England are currently winning the cricket match with South Africa.

So all in all, it’s a good day!

July 28, 2008

Driving in the right direction

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 7:50 pm

Almost exactly a century ago this week, Henry Ford launched the first car priced to be affordable by people on aveage incomes.

I wonder if Ford had even an inkling of how the entire world was going to be transformed as a result.  No wonder Yogi Berra said he rarely made predictions – especially about the future. 

Speaking of cars, gas (as in petrol) consumption has dropped as of April, 2008 for seven consecutive months in the U.S.  That’s got to be good news, doesn’t it?

July 11, 2008

In parenthesis

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 2:29 pm

After I made my posting yesterday about teachers who change the lives of students, I began to reflect on students who have changed my own life.  I am planning on describing some of them, but I am taking time, in parenthesis, as it were, to explore a more contemporary situation.  This is something of a navel-gazing exercise, which is apt to be fascinating for me and boring to everyone else.  In fact, you may wish to stop reading here and come back tomorrow. 

My current ruminations are about why we humans so often find it intolerable when others disagree with us.  Why do we find dialogue so incredibly difficult?   In response to the presentation I made earlier this year at Maryknoll about the 13 billion years since the universe began with the Big Bang, an ex-Maryknoller has written objecting to my serious deviation from the truth of the scriptures.  She believes that theories like the Big Bang and evolution are anti-scripture, and so anti-God.  I myself have thought long and hard about the relationship between religion and science, have studied the philosophy of science as well as theology, and appreciate that the questions involved are complex and significant.  I respect people who struggle with these issues, whether or not I agree with their particular position, and have learned as much from discussions with people who hold ideas I disagree with as from those whose views are already similar to mine.

And so I was surprised and disappointed when this objector turned down my eager invitation to enter into a dialogue.  She said that dialogue between believers in the truth of the sacred scriptions and people like me who hold erroneous beliefs is impossible.  I wanted to suggest that what we disagree about is the interpretation of scripture, not whether the scriptures are a source of truth, but she is adamant that she is “with great sadness” cutting off all further communication.

In the absence of any further dialogue, any analysis of why she is taking this position is based on pure fantasy on my part, and seems fairly useless.   But a variation of this vignette is repeated hundreds of thousands of time around the world probably in a day.  And we seem to become most exercised in relation to subjects where there is no possible final absolutely convincing evidence to support one side or the other.  We don’t, for instance, argue about whether it’s Friday or Sunday today, or if my car will run on orange juice instead of petrol.  If some nut says it will, I will probably laugh, but not get angry.  We seem to become most angry and intolerant in relation to questions of religion, sex, and politics, even to the point where we feel morally justified in killing those who do not hold the same views we do.

Why is this?  is it some deep, irrational survival instinct that senses mortal danger if we do not all stand together?  Whatever the reason, in today’s globalized world, this intolerance is becoming increasingly lethal.  I am not struggling with the impulse to murder people who disagree with me, but I do have to struggle on occasion to maintain respect for the rights of others to defend some ideas.  To make matters even more difficult, I tend to label people by labelling their ideas.  So I’m quite capable of concluding from their ideas that people who hold them are stupid, uninformed, frightened, bigoted, uneducated, immoral, illogical, intolerant, neurotic – I need not go on, but the list is potentially endless.  (My own ideas, of course, while occasionally wrong, are rarely so ill-favoured.)

Having discovered that there are some ideas and people who hold them that infuriate me to the point of unreason, I have been forced to ask myself why.  My painful discovery is that I am in some areas as incapable of tolerance as the intolerant people I so abhor.  We’re just intolerant about different things. 

So I have been working on separating respect for a person and disagreeing with their ideas.  It’s tempting to do this by saying that there aren’t any fixed values, that everything is relative and everybody is entitled to their point of view.  Of course everybody is entitled to their point of view, but that does not mean I do not need to live by the standard of my own values and convictions.  Although it does mean that I need to be aware that they may sometimes need to be re-evaluated. 

The good news is that with practice it is possible to make progress in doing this. 

The bad news is that I’ve still something of a mountain to climb.

July 9, 2008

Can we handle globalization?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Political thoughts,Worries — theotheri @ 9:53 pm

I remember sitting on the floor in a Brooklyn apartment with a group of ex-Maryknoll and university friends watching television together as the first men landed on the moon.  It seemed so incredibly exciting, and I did not feel a shadow pass through the room as Neil Armstrong took his “giant step for mankind.”

Tonight the news featured Iran’s testing of launchers that could send missiles as far as Israel and into Western Europe.  Russia is threatening to stop America setting up a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe using military for “if necessary,” the Roman Catholic Church is angry at the vote by the Anglican Church to consecrate women bishops, and the G8 countries left their luxury island in Japan saying they hope they have decided to do something about Africa and environmental change.

It doesn’t take years or even months or days anymore to find out what is going on around the world.  It takes minutes.  This might be exciting, but it seems terribly dangerous.  It doesn’t give us time to cool down, to get over our initial bursts of adrenalin.

There is so much about modern life that I appreciate, so much about human beings that is creative and ingenious and generous.  But it’s scary.

June 3, 2008

Bee colony collapse: An update

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 7:13 pm

Last month I wrote a post on bee colony collapse which, since bees pollinate so many of our grain fields around the world, could be catastrophic for our already stretched global food supplies.  I was particularly worried about the possibility that it was being exacerbated, if not caused, by GM crops, and promised to find out about the validity of this claim.

I have finally had the opportunity to contact a geneticist in whose professional accomplishments as well as integrity I place an exceptional high level of trust – if only because he was the first geneticist I heard give a public address in the United States about what were and what were not real dangers in GM crops running rampant and swamping other crops by interbreeding. 

He said that the most likely cause of bee colony collapse is a viral infection which may have begun in Europe, but that the possibility that it is being caused by genetically modified crops is “so remote as to border on the ridiculous.”

A rare bit of encouraging news then.

May 6, 2008

Hope at the cash machine

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 7:19 pm

When I was in New York City last week, I stopped to withdraw cash from a machine in the Bronx.  I withdrew the cash from the slot, pushed the icon saying I did not need a receipt, and walked away.  I was about to leave when a middle-aged Black woman said to me with the kind of authority that is possessed only by self-assured matriarchs, “You just left without signing out from your bank account.”  She grabbed my arm and marched me back to the ATM, telling me that what I did was extremely dangerous.

I’m not used to being spoken to as if I were in the first stages of senile dementia, but I have to admit this was a super-stupid thing for me to do, and I was both chastened and grateful.  I did as I was told, and then submitted to a further stern lecture about what the screen should look like before I step away from it in the future.

This is the kind of experience that gives me hope for mankind.  It’s not the kind of thing people do that ever makes the news.  And yet it happens.  It would not have been hard to understand if this woman had seen what I had done and taken advantage of making a further dip into my account.  After all, she could have reasoned, look at all the unjust things that have been done to her.  This is a chance to get just a little even.  But she didn’t.  Instead, she gave me a much needed talking to.

It’s the kind of thing that just might save the world after all. 

And I do not say that facetiously. 

May 5, 2008

Bee colony collapse disorder

Filed under: Life as a Nun,Worries — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

When I was at Maryknoll last weekend, someone asked me what I knew about bee colony collapse and its relationship to genetically modified crops.  She said she’d read that first generation bees seemed to show no effect, but second generation bees suffered from serious immune deficiencies that made them vulnerable to the viruses and diseases that seemed to be wiping them out.

I had not heard about this possibility before, although I was aware that the sudden and unexplained collapse of bee colonies was becoming a serious concern to American farmers who depend on the bees to pollinate their crops.  So I did a search on Google to see what I could learn.  I appreciate that using the internet as a source of reliable information much be approached with great caution and belief should be suspended until one is sure of the reliability of the source. 

Nonetheless, what I read is leading me to follow this question up with some serious concern.  I think it is not hysterical hype to believe that the collapse of bee colonies and other pollinating insects (which are also declining, but not as the same rate as bees) is potentially catastrophic.  Unlike global warming which could gradually squeeze essential water and food supplies over the next half century or so, bee colony collapse could lead to a devastating loss of almost all the world’s entire food supply in less than a decade.

So how bad, really, is the problem, and what is causing it?  I’m fairly certain that it is reliable information that 1/2 of  all American states are affected, most badly on the east and west coasts where 60-70%  of the bee colonies have collapsed without apparent cause, and that the disorder has now begun to spread to Europe.  I don’t know at this point how fast it is spreading, nor how much of our food supply is actually imminently under threat.  I am going to try to find out.

The cause or causes of the disorder are equally problematic.  Some scientists say we simply do not know at this point.  Some think the radiation generated by mobile phones is contributing to the problem, while others are looking for some toxin or chemical fertilizer, as well as at some types of GM crops.  There are reports that when the colonies collapse, other insects do not raid them for their honey, which is usually the case, and that the dead and dying bees show unusually high levels of viral infection.  I have been aware that the US government has put some money into research toward solving this problem, but I haven’t had bee colony collapse disorder high enough on my worry list to keep abreast of current developments.

However, the problem has just made a giant leap up my Priority List of Mega Concerns.   

April 18, 2008

IRS-induced anxiety attack

Filed under: Growing Old,Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 3:11 pm

I went on line today to see what was happening to the US tax refund I thought should be in my bank account by now and wasn’t.  According to the feedback in relation to my return on the IRS (the US tax revenue service) website, I’d made a mistake and instead of getting the tax refund of just under $500, I owned them more than $600.  I tried to be calm, though that was somewhat difficult as my heart rate had shot up to over 100 bpm.  I carefully went through the numbers covering the errors they said I’d made and could not find the problem,  In fact, I thought my refund should have been $75 bigger, not $600 smaller.  

At which point I told Peter I’d reached the conclusion that I had to stop trying to do so much, because somehow I just can’t get my brain cells to work as well as they used to.  I told him I’d made some kind of mistake I couldn’t identify.  (But not that the size of my mistake was well over a thousand dollars.  I was saving that for a gin&tonic moment.)

Anyway, I got as clear a grasp of the issues as my anxiety could manage and phoned the IRS customer service line.  After a ten minute wait, during which I was urged not to hang up because my call “was important to them,” an agent took my identifying information.  At first she said there had been a problem with my social security number on my return.  I asked her what she meant, because the number was complete on my copy.  She fluffled around, so I suggested we move on to the errors they’d identified.  “Oh,” she said, “that’s been changed.  You were right on your original return and we’ve reinstated your original figures.  It’s just not uploaded to our website yet.” 

So she’s reauthorizing the refund.  I’m hugely relieved, of course.  But I’m beginning to think that if my brain cells aren’t working as well as they used to, they might be working better than the cells employed by the IRS.  I strongly suspect that the “problem with my social security number on my return” was their mistake as well.

But our internet connection is still working.  What more can one ask for?  All and all, it’s turning out to be a good day.

March 29, 2008

About fathers and elephants

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 9:10 pm

By coincidence after my ruminations about cruelty yesterday, I read some fascinating statistics about violence.

But let me begin with a story about an elephant cull that took place in Africa some years ago.  The elephant population in one of the nature reserves was becoming too large.  It was invading the fields of farmers nearby and authorities decided a cull was necessary.

In a misbegotten attempt to keep the females with the youngsters as well as to slow future population growth, the cull was limited to male elephant bulls whose numbers was drastically reduced.  But over the next few years, juvenile male elephants began to get out of control, causing much greater mayhem that even the larger population before the cull.  The keepers eventually realized that the problem was that the adult male elephants had exerted a socializing and moderating effect on the young males, and without them, the young males were simply running wild.  With the re-introduction of adult elephant bulls, the problem gradually subsided.

Today, I stumbled on a case for a human counterpart.  A recent analysis of the history of violence suggests that young men are more apt to believe that problems can be solved through violence than any other group in society.  And a study of demographcs seems to suggest that when there is a bulge of young males in a society, there is an upsurge of violence.  Without young men, violence is much less apt to occur, even in the fact of  social upheaval, injustice, or subjugation.  Nor is it necessarily reduced by increasing levels of education and affluence.

This pattern is not limited to any particular ethnic group nor is it limited to our present age.  It shows up in our prisons repeatedly.  It happened in the U.S. and Britain in 1968, in 17th century England, in Germany in WWI, during the French Revolution, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China, the troubles in Ireland, in Palestine, and Afghanistan.   Today there are 67 countries where 15-29 year olds make up more than 30% of the population.  There are significant levels of violence in 60 of them.

Do high levels of unemployment make a bad problem worse?  How significant is the influence of social injustice?  I don’t know.  I don’t know either how big an impact being raised without a father has on human male juveniles.  I’m sure fathers are by no means the whole solution.  But the number of children being raised without fathers in the world today worries me.

The best hope, perhaps, is that young males between the ages of 15-29 don’t stay that age.  And when they grow up, fighting it out doesn’t seem like such a good solution anymore.

March 5, 2008

The problem of God

After yesterday’s post, I started to think about God again.   I don’t do that more than five or six times a week, so it’s not quite as important as deciding what to have for dinner each day.  But as I have gone through my life trying on every variety of belief on the subject, God’s existence or otherwise does impress me as a question that significantly influences my personal view of what in heaven’s name we are doing here on planet Earth.

Personally, I don’t know if there’s a God or not.  Nobody does, though what infuriates me to the point of speechlessness are people who are absolutely sure they do know and who are committed to imposing that certainty on everyone else.  I have met The Certains in a great variety of forms.  Some are committed atheists who rant that people who believe in God and even seriously practice their religious beliefs are ignorant, uneducated, frightened, or probably all of the above.  And then, of course, there are the committed Believers.  I have been told by some that I am on my way to hell.  The most fashionable fanatics these days will actually give up their own lives to eliminate not only anyone who disagree with them, but even those unfortunate enough to be in their presence when the suicide bomb detonates.

I do not want to give the impression, however, that these forms of either believing or unbelieving bigotry are modern inventions.  The most superficial review of history shows that these intolerant impulses have been with us for thousands of years.

But modern Western cultures have a special problem about God.  “I don’t believe in God,” wrote the author Julian Barnes, “but I miss him.”  That’s the problem.  Where does meaning come from without God?  Or hope? 

For myself, I think that not having a God does not pose a problem for goodness, for unselfishness, or altruism or morality.  All the evidence with which I am familiar is that these behaviors are intrinsically rewarding, and we, like many other animals, engage in them.  I gave back a ten dollar bill last week when the clerk accidentally gave me $9 extra change, and left feeling like a superior human being.  I don’t need God to explain that.

But what about dying?  what about the meaning of life?  what about destiny?  what about the fact that you and I and everybody and everything we love is destined for sheer, complete annihilation?

I will confess that I choose to believe in God.  Not the God that would in any way satisfy most religious believers whom I know.  But I simply cannot accept that the Universe is meaningless.  And if it has meaning, I personally can’t see where the meaning comes from without some concept – however incoherent – of some reality we call God. 

I can’t buy the whole package of most religious institutions.  But (and this is what I don’t even whisper out loud to committed Believers) I think we are all part of God, and we have a part in creating God and creating meaning.  Purpose isn’t out there in some Great Plan conceived by some All-Powerful All-Wise God.  We have to participate in giving meaning to existence.  So I don’t ask myself anymore when something (usually sad or bad) happens, “What is the meaning of this?  Why did God let this happen?” but “What meaning can I make of this?  How can I use it to bring about something worthwhile?”

As an heroic and very wise woman said recently after her gifted young son killed himself, the question isn’t “Porque?” but “Por qua?” 

Not “Why?” but “What for?”

February 23, 2008

The Obama Roll

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 3:20 pm

The (London) Times had a front page story about the Obama campaign today.  They suggested a problem emerging I’d not foreseen, which is the messianic fervor of some of his followers.

I’ve just begun to be convinced that his voting record and various policy positions showed a welcome political pragmatism and lack of faith-based certainty which offered hope that he could be an effective president.  I’ve seen nothing in his speeches to indicate that he is chasing a left-ish version of the right-leaning Evangelicals, but if they start flocking to him, I can see it could be an electoral handicap.

February 19, 2008

Sleep escape

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 6:17 am

It’s four in the morning and after an hour of sleepless tossing, I finally gave in and got up.   I’m sitting at my computer aware we are going to London today and hoping I won’t be too tired to enjoy my introduction to The Camden Town Group of painters at the Tate Museum.

Why is it that worries in the middle of the night take on an dimension they don’t have in the pure light of day?  Irrational possibilities loom with threatening urgency, small problems become unsolvable, health becomes plagued with serious symptoms suggestive of the last stages of cancer.

Perhaps the irrationality of night fears is a glimmer of what it’s like to be psychotic.  Only without the assurance that life will return to manageable form with dawn.

January 3, 2008

Watching Iowa from afar

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English,Worries — theotheri @ 10:56 pm

It is quite astonishing how involved the English media are in the Iowa caucuses, and in the whole U.S. election process.   I’ve read several columns expressing appreciation and almost envy at the dynamic rough and tumble by which the party candidates are selected, and the Iowa vote today is a key news item on all the television news hours and major newspapers. 

It is almost impossible to describe, unless you are living outside the United States, the change of attitude that has taken place in relation to America.  When 9/11 happened, the identification with Americans and the support for America and our values was deeper and broader than I’ve ever seen it.  Since the Iraq war went forward without the support of the United Nations and then when Abu Graib and Guantanamo and the secret renditions were revealed, respect for our values has plummeted.  We are not respected for standing up for what we believe in, for fighting for democracy, but are seen as bullies and thugs.  Albeit very strong and fairly rich bullies and thugs.

Now, at least here in England, they are watching the election process, and people are desperately eager to know the outcome. I think much of Europe is hoping as much as many of the votes in the U.S. that we will find our way again.

 I don’t think a Democratic president will be absolutely wonderful.  But I think it’s essential that the Republicans are not allowed to hold onto the White House.  Not electing a Republican is the only signal Americans can send that says we respect human rights, not just for Americans, but for all humans.  That says that wire tapping without a court order, that holding people in prison  without charge or trial for years without foreseeable end, that torture and destruction of evidence violates our most fundamental values. 

And then, of course, one can only hope that a Democratic president might at least appear to care more about the global environment than our present oil-loving president and vice-president.

December 1, 2007

40 lashes

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English,Worries — theotheri @ 3:34 pm

A 54 year old teacher from Liverpool, England, is currently in a Sudanese prison for letting her class name their teddy bear “Mohamed.”  She’s been teaching in a Christian school there for several months, and in her naivete wrote to her pupils’ parents to share with them the results of this small manifestation of democracy.  To the horror of Britain and a good number of Muslim organizations and individuals, she was put on trial within days, threatened with imprisonment and 40 lashes administered in public. 

She was sentenced to 15 days in prison, but men are marching the streets calling for her public execution.  She’s being kept in police custody for her own safety rather than being transferred to the disease-ridden and over-crowded women’s prison to serve her sentence before being deported back to England. 

The press here is outraged at the Sudanese reaction to what was clearly a naive mistake made with the greatest good will.  But I remember Sister Edith at Maryknoll saying that too many of us were going as missionaries to other countries in a comparable state of ignorance, believing that because we meant to do good, we would do good.  Of course, to want to do good is better than aiming for evil, but it’s not enough.

Unfortunately it is so much easier to rage at people who are different.  It seems hard for all of us humans to recognize ourselves in people whose skin is a different color, whose language sounds foreign, whose cultural practices don’t resonate.  We all seem to be subject to doing it.  Europeans and Americans have a history as terrifying as anybody else.

Somehow, we’re all subject to thinking that if you’re different, you’re just a little less “one of us,” whoever “us” might be. 

November 25, 2007

Brainy exercise

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 2:57 pm

Since prime time television in our house lasts for about two hours between 8 and 10 pm, we’ve found that most of the programmes we want to watch seem to be on when we are sleeping or doing something else.   So we bought a DVD player/recorder.  It was delivered yesterday.

I’m usually pretty good at following directions – even those written in Hong Kong or Beijing – so I sat down with the cables and the manuals for our TV, our satellite receiver, and the new recorder.  Aaagh!

They don’t match – outlets one manual says should be there on another component don’t seem to bear a resemblance to what we actually have.  I have tried versions from each of the manuals so far without success and am now resorting to actually trying to figure out what sends signals to where, instead of slavishly following the diverse instructions.

But I’m reaching the conclusion that this stuff about continuing to exercise ones brain as we get older is over-hyped.  It is just as boring as the old-fashioned kind of exercise, and I fear I lack a consuming desire to really understand how these electronic cables work. 

Still, I estimate there are 120 different ways the cables can be connected.  If I try one a day, I should have the problem cracked no later than the end of March. 


November 8, 2007

Losing it

There’s a lot of things I don’t worry about anymore that used to cripple me when I was young.  Things like – do people like me?  did I just say something utterly stupid or insensitive?  am I making a worthwhile contribution in payment for the time and space I’ve been given on this planet?  do I look good in this outfit? 

But as I am getting old, I have found a few new things to worry about.  Like forgetting words or people’s names.  So I think the email from the accountant yesterday indicating that I’d vastly miscalculated my final tax bill was so shocking because I was afraid I was losing my faculties.  I was more shocked that I could have made a mistake of such proportions than I was upset about the tax I’m probably going to have to pay. 

The tax material came from the accountant today.  I’m afraid the final bill is going to be uncomfortably big, but I was hugely relieved to see that the reason I’d calculated quite a different sum was not because I am losing it.  I didn’t know that some calculations are applied differently to my tax return because I am an American than they are to my husband’s return who is English.  People here don’t seem to expect to know the tax rules.  They just give their numbers to an accountant and sign on the bottom line when the form is filled in for them, so it is difficult to get accurate information. 

Mostly I like the way the English do things.  But when it comes to understanding my own tax return, I’m thoroughly and irrevocably American.

November 7, 2007

About bones and taxes

Filed under: Growing Old,Osteoporosis,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 8:54 pm

I don’t usually indulge in a double gin and tonic.  I don’t usually indulge in more than one single gin and tonic a week.  But I did tonight.  Not sure about the delays of rush hour traffic I might run into, I arrived this morning at the doctor’s office (known as “surgery” here in the UK) at 8:30 for my 9:00 appointment.  Unfortunately, the receptionist had re-booked me for 4:30 but forgotten to tell me.  There was nothing to do but return eight hours later, which I did.  By then the doctor was running late, and I saw him at 5:30.

But I finally did find out the results of my latest bone density scan.  Basically they are inconclusive.  Things probably – probably – haven’t gotten worse, but there is a built-in error rate when different machines are used, a problem compounded by the fact that different measurements were also taken.  So I’m seeing a bone specialist after a blood test next week to find out if any more light can be shed on what is happening.  Possibly my bones are thinning at a normal rate which, unfortunately, started with my menopause which began 4-5 years earlier than average.

But the shock was to come home to the email from my tax accountant here who estimates that I probably owe several thousand dollars in back taxes, interest, and penalties for the last five years.  This will not drive us into the poor house.  It will not force us, even, to choose between heat and hunger.  But it will cost.  And I am not someone who doesn’t deliberately pay the tax I owe when it is due, so it is somewhat shattering.  I’m looking forward to receiving the forms tomorrow or Friday to see what went so drastically wrong in my calculations.

My survival strategy is not very profound, but it usually works.  Basically, it’s a version of “well, things could be worse.”  This doesn’t work for Peter at all, but I take consolation in telling myself that if I could choose between learning today that my back tax bill is much greater than I expected or that my bones had continued to deteriorate at a dangerous rate, I’d take what in fact I got.  So things could be worse.

On the other hand, I do have to agree with Peter that they could be better.  Well, who knows?  maybe they are.

To see additional posts on osteoporosis, click on “Select Category” in the right-hand column, and select Osteoporosis.

November 5, 2007

The temptation of Iraq’s oil

Filed under: Uncategorized,Worries — theotheri @ 5:06 pm

The possibility that the Iraq war may have been about oil is hardly a new idea.  I’ve pretty much taken it for granted for several years.  But in my naivete, I thought it was merely about the price of oil and its availability in sufficient quantity to supply the voracious American market.  A recent article by Jim Holt in the London Review of Books tries to analyze what Alan Greenspan had in mind when he says he regrets that the role of oil in the Iraq conflict was not appreciated more fully.

Here is the scenario Holt explores:

  • Iraq has 115 billion barrels of known oil reserves, and 2 to 3 times that amount in reserves not yet discovered.   This might reflect as much as one fourth of the entire oil reserves in the world.  Even better, Iraq’s oil is light crude with low production costs, and is estimated to be worth about $30 trillion in today’s prices.
  • The total projected cost of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq is about $1 trillion.
  • The draft law written by the US for the Iraqi congress cedes nearly all the oil to Western companies.  It gives the Iraq National Oil Company control of 17 of Iraq’s 80 existing oilfields, and leaves the rest (including everything yet to be discovered) in foreign control for 30 years.
  • To protect this oil, the US military is building five self-sufficient super-bases in Iraq.  They are each a well-protected version of American suburbia with fast food shops, miniature golf courses, cinemas, stores, and cosy ” neighbourhoods.”  These are not being called “permanent bases” in Washington, but “enduring bases.”  The suspicion is that the U.S. will maintain an indefinite military presence in Iraq as long as there is even a suggestion of civil unrest – in other words, for as long as the oil lasts.

But it is what the U.S. might do with control of one-quarter of the world’s oil that I found so mind-boggling:

  • US oil companies will benefit massively, and US voters will be guaranteed a permanent oil supply at what is considered a reasonable price.  Europe and Japan will also benefit and so could conceivably be convinced to go along with the American raid of Iraq’s oil.
  • Oil controlled by OPEC, including Saudi Arabia’s oil, will no longer be critical to America.   Russia, who is currently gaining a strangle-hold in Europe with its supply of oil, will be greatly weakened.  America will be able to reduce the price of world oil, undermining Iran, and potentially Venezuela and other uppity oil-producing countries who are using their oil money to take an independent stand against the U.S.
  • One of the biggest changes could be in relation to China.  The growing trade deficit with China (currently a mere $trillion) could be wiped out with a flick of the gas pump and China’s emerging threat neutralized.

What might be the price for this scenario?

  • Well first of all, there’s the moral question.  It isn’t exactly oil that belongs to America, is it?
  • In lives and money, the occupation of Iraq is currently costing the lives of 20-30 servicemen and women a month, and several billion dollars.
  • America will lose much of the incentive it has to find radical alternatives to oil, and they won’t want anybody else to find one either;  we will have the oil we want, and with it a stranglehold on power around the world.  Consequently the problems created by climate change are unlikely to be addressed or reduced.  These include flooding, polluted air and water supplies, and rapidly spreading disease.
  • It might not reduce terrorism, which will therefore probably continue to increase our loss of freedoms and destabilize our moral compass even further.

So what do you think?  I’ve been wondering if I could be bought for a prize like this.  Is Bush much more devious – and clever – than I imagined?  Is this why even the anti-war Democratic candidates for president are not promising to be out of Iraq by the end of their first term in office? 

November 3, 2007

Cure for neurotic worry

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Uncategorized,Worries — theotheri @ 4:08 pm

After posting my worry blog yesterday, it finally became clear to me that the reason I couldn’t stop worrying about my UK tax situation was that I wasn’t confident I could defend the relevant figures in the event of an audit.  Having identified the problem, I sat down with my tax files and studied them in the light of everything I’ve learned in the last four months about the tax system here.  It helped a lot.  That nagging neurotic obsessive worry has disappeared, leaving merely a realistic desire to finish the process and hope that the final bill isn’t too far adrift from my expectations.

I did know there was something unrealistic about the way I was worrying, but I’m amazed the solution was so obvious.   It did, of course, take some studying on my part and I couldn’t have done it when I first started out on this learning escapade. 

But it confirms my philosophy.  Whether it’s worry or depression or illness or anxiety or loneliness or anger, it’s not just the event out there that explains how we feel.  We ourselves bring our own interpretations to events too.  It can change things completely. 

November 2, 2007

An experiment in worrying

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 5:04 pm

During the last four or five years of his life, my Dad paced the floor night after night worried that, as a lawyer, he may have given poor legal advice to one of his clients.  I don’t know the details, but I do know Dad worried that if he were sued, he could lose everything – our house, the land, all his savings.  He worried particularly what this would mean for his wife who he knew was almost certainly going to outlive him.  There wasn’t a lot any of us could do to help Dad.  Telling him not to worry, especially since most of us knew absolutely nothing about the issues involved, would merely demonstrate that we didn’t know what we were talking about.   Ultimately, the case was satisfactorily resolved the week he died.

I’ve been remembering Dad’s anguish during the last couple of weeks, as the tax accountant here has still not managed to review my UK tax situation covering the last five years.  What if I am wrong that, if I owe any back taxes at all, the sums are minimal?  Peter keeps telling me not to worry, and I can’t see that my concern is rational.  I don’t usually worry about things like this either, so it’s an interesting experience to be unable to throw it off.

November 26 is the deadline for filing, so by definition this won’t go on for the four or five years it went on with Dad.  And of course not nearly so much is at stake.    

But I will be very glad when the accountant finally gets the papers to me.  I have a couple of other things lined up to worry about.

September 13, 2007

The McCanns: A tragedy whatever happened

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 9:53 pm

Last May a four-year-old English girl disappeared from the bedroom where she was sleeping with her younger brother and sister in Portugal.  Her parents were having dinner about 100 yards from the apartment, and when they went back to check the children, Madeleine was gone.  Despite world-wide publicity, an audience with the Pope, and several reported “sightings,” Madeleine has not been found.

Her parents, two medical doctors, returned with their two children to England last week, but the Portugal police think that Madeleine’s mother accidentally killed her, and that the parents somehow hid the body, and five weeks later transported it in their rental car to a new hiding spot.  There is gripping DNA evidence to support this hypothesis, and the police offered Kate McCann (the mother) a reduced sentence if she confessed.  After sixteen hours of interrogation in which she denied responsibility, they released her.

The problem is that the DNA evidence was gathered under dubious circumstances, most of it collected months after Madeleine’s disappearance and not gathered according to the standards which a court of law in England would require.

It’s almost impossible to find a happy version of this story.  At best, two parents have lost a greatly-loved child, and are now being accused of having killed her.  Or possibly two parents did kill her with an overdose of medicine she should not have been given, and they are trying to cover it up.  Perhaps they will get away with it.  Perhaps, guilty or innocent, they will be convicted of manslaughter and concealing a body, and imprisoned for years in Portugal.  Their two year old twins will be stripped of their entire family – mother, father, sister.  Rightly or wrongly, two medical careers will be destroyed and a mother and father faced with the anguish of loss I find unimaginable. 

To me, each of the versions is possible.  Kate McCann’s family are adamant that she could not do such a thing.  But I know that people think I am a good, kind, loving person with principles, and I also know that I have seriously thought about killing someone.  If I had, and then come to regret it, I’m not at all sure I would have had the courage to admit it.  There have been times in my life when I have not admitted my responsibility even over small things.  I did break that plate but didn’t say so.  Yes, I dented the car fender.  No, I didn’t tell the clerk that she’d just given me too much change.  Or admit that I’d said something disparaging about a friend.  How would I respond if, accidentally or not, I’d done something much much worse?

The investigation continues but the Portuguese police have not accepted any outside help, even from the internationally acclaimed Scotland Yard’s Child Abduction team. 

I guess to say it’s worrisome is the understatement of the decade.

August 4, 2007

The price of depression

Filed under: Depression and Autism,Family,Husband,Worries — theotheri @ 10:06 pm

The village where I live is shaken just now by the suicide of a young women who lived around the corner from us.  We were not well-acquainted, but I know she was attractive, in her twenties, vibrant, always with a cheerful smile.  She hanged herself.  Nobody seems to know why, but her boyfriend left a short time ago.  Perhaps that was the reason.  If it was, it can’t be the whole reason.  There must have been a deeper, longer depression of which this was the terrible climax.

Surprisingly, although the hopelessness of depression robs everything of joy, makes everything seem worthless, it is often hidden, a private face that the family sees and that the public never suspects.  Even a supremely successful professional  might at home be engulfed in irrational despair or make unreasonable demands of a family equally desperate to avoid the descent of darkness.  A depressive himself often uses alcohol to stay out of depression’s grip.  It is futile, because alcohol is in itself a depressive, but first it provides a short escape into euphoria.  Shopping for things one doesn’t need but desperately wants until one gets them home, binge eating, paranoia,  irrational bursts of anger, and many addictions are also often attempts to escape the deadly cloud of depression. 

It is hard to be serially depressed.  It is also immensely difficult to love and live with a depressive.  Just as depression takes different forms, so too its toll on others.   When my mother died and my father remarried, I saw for the first time watching his second wife that it was possible to love someone and yet not to blame oneself for their depression.  I don’t think my mother altogether understood this, and I suspect that blaming herself for my father’s unhappiness contributed to her early death.

I still struggle sometimes to keep myself separate from someone else’s depression.  Not to let it infect me with the same hopelessness, not to cast around desperately for some solution that will lift the cloud for them.  Sometimes I know when Peter is depressed, and I feel guilty, feeling in some irrational, inchoate way that it is my fault.  I try not to let Peter see this, because this guilt of mine is as irrational as his depression.

So we’ve learned and shared and loved.  And yet, it is still not always easy.  It’s been a challenge that occasionally I have felt I could have done without.  But – and this is the mystery – I know I needed it.  And chose it.

August 1, 2007

Thoughts on planning a murder

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 10:10 pm

In a post several days ago I remarked on the bullying attitude of the male hierarchy that runs the Roman Catholic Church.  One might think therefore that I’m a committed and ardent feminist.  Committed and ardent, but not without ambivalence. 

A friend remarked to me today that we might be on the cusp of the re-emergence and even dominance of feminine perspectives.  Perhaps, but let us not assume that feminine perspectives are necessarily more understanding and tolerant, more sympathetic and peace-loving then male perspectives.  Our strategies are often different because of our different strengths and weaknesses relative to men and our different positions in society.  My personal experience is that we are capable of just as much vicious hatred and aggression as men.  It just often takes a different form.

One of my most terrifying moments of self-knowledge came when I realized that, in cold blood, I had seriously planned in great detail how to murder someone.  And I don’t just mean theoretically.  I figured out how to commit a real murder and how not to get caught.  Had I done it, it would have been a devious betrayal of someone who would have believed that I could be trusted with his life.  Someone who had volunteered to care for him during his last months.   And I could very well have stood by his bedside saying soothing words – a kind of terrible Florence Nightingale in disguise.  My proposed method was typical of my feminine way of operating.  I would not stop appearing to be kind and caring.  I would just slip small amounts of aspirin into his food that in his case would slowly kill him.  I even mixed some into applesauce one day and tasted it to see if it could be detected.

I didn’t do it in the end because I thought under the circumstances I had no conceivable right to take this man’s life.  I was not being forced, I wasn’t being pressured by my husband or father or friend, and there were other ways out of the dilemma in which I found myself besides murder.  But even now I sometimes shudder when I remember what part of me is capable of.   I who, on one hand, am incandescent when I read of honour killings also contemplated killing someone whom I found inconvenient.  So I’m not so sure that should a feminine perspective replace male dominance that truth and love and goodness would always be the victor.  I’m not sure we would put an end to wars.  We might just fight with different methods. 

We women have a dark side too.  Just as dark as men.  A lot of times I think we’re just sneakier. 

July 25, 2007

Gift from England’s floods

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 8:55 pm

A lot of people have been emailing us to ask if we are all right or are caught in the terrible floods inundating so many towns in Britain right now.  Mostly it is a supportive and pleasant reminder that people care about us.  Keenly aware as I have become these days that my greatest delights and strength seem to come from watching or talking to people, I’m mostly grateful for the attention, even as I sit here snug and dry at my unthreatened computer.

I’m mostly grateful.  But not a hundred per cent grateful.  There are just a few people whose worry is intensely irritating.  Because I don’t think they are really worried.  I’ve recognized for many years that the threat to worry about me is sometimes an attempt at control.  As in “Don’t do that, because I will worry if you do.”  But worriers who are irritating me today seem seriously needy.  It is as if they are saying that their worry is a badge of their belonging to my circle of friends.  And although some of them do, this kind of demonstrative worry for my welfare is a good way to get ejected.  I greatly prefer friends who trust I can survive most of what life throws at me, but who trust that I will ask for help if I want it, and whom I can trust to respond if at all possible.

All of which has set me thinking about loving.  Mostly we are taught that we should show our love of our parents, friends, our partner, our children.  We should remember their birthdays and celebrate anniversaries.  We should hug them, share meals with them, and show that we are sincerely glad at their achievements.  In general, show in a thousand different ways that they are important to us. 

But there is a place not to show someone how much we care.  Sometimes because our caring is simply a selfish display of our own needs.  Sometimes because that person isn’t ours to love in the way we love them.  Sometimes because it will be a burden for the person to have to carry our love as their responsibility. 

When I wrote about MT in “My most mysterious love” post, I said I determined never to let him know how much I cared about him.  Partly it was because I didn’t – perhaps still don’t – trust that my feelings are quite as purely selfless as I would like to believe.  But partly too it is because I sensed it would be an unpleasant burden for him to carry.  I am glad I did what I did. 

Today – literally today – is the first time in my life when I have thought it might actually have been something positive to have done.  Up until now it has always felt like nothing more than a black hole, a mysterious renunciation with no purpose.  So maybe that fuss pot who wrote expressing overwhelming worry about whether we are caught in the floods paradoxically gave me the best gift of all the worriers – an insight that has eluded me for years.

July 16, 2007

Grapefruit and breast cancer

Filed under: Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 7:01 pm

A major research report has just been published in the U.S. in a study of over 50,000 post-menopausal women.  It found that women who eat three or more grapefruit a week are three times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who don’t eat grapefruit at all.  They think grapefruit might raise estrogen levels which is associated with higher rates of breast cancer.

My mother died at a very young age of cancer, one of my younger sisters died of breast cancer twelve years ago (it feels closer to twelve months), and another sister is in remission from the disease.  So I tend to notice reports like this.   Not sure how I manged to reach my current age without greater mishap though.

I guess I’ll switch back to apples.  But I’m still going to enjoy all three grapefruit I bought in the market yesterday.

June 21, 2007

I-Rack, I-Ran, and Me-2

Filed under: Just Stuff,The Younger Generation,Worries — theotheri @ 1:53 pm

For the fourth time, someone has sent me a U-tube video of Steve Jobs demonstrating his new I-Rack.  It’s a sardonic swipe at Bush & Co, and possibly since I agree with thrust, I think it’s quite funny.

I sure hope, though, that U-tube isn’t a substitute for political action.  Only pressure on our elected officials is going to change their course of action, and only people’s votes are going to get those gangsters out of office. 

It’s beginning to worry me a little that U-tube might be the level of political discourse that is actually influencing people’s political convictions.  What I hope instead is that people are outraged by the disastrous and deceitful neo-conservative conduct of U.S. foreign policy for more substantive reasons than a successful U-tube video.   In other words, I hope that the video and others like it are a manifestation of deeper understanding and analysis, not a substitute for it.

Do you think it is?

May 27, 2007

Rules of miscommunication

Filed under: Family,The English,Worries — theotheri @ 1:35 pm

I grew up in a large family in which, until my mother died leaving ten children between 6 and 20 years old, dinner discussions were often robust.  Especially on Saturdays, when Father Basil came to dinner and he and Dad carried on learned debates about the state of the world.  Father Basil was an old school friend of Dad’s, who became a Catholic priest and a history professor at the university.  I learned how to think from these Saturday night dinners.  Above all, I think I learned to take the arguments of the opposition seriously by trying to argue their side against my own.  It’s a practice I’ve tried to continue.

But families change, and we have discovered that the rules of argument and communication are not the same for every family in the next generation.  Our respect – even liking – for each other came perilously close to breaking down completely when we tried to discuss abortion in a heated email exchange.  We now have a tacit agreement to avoid any subject on which the Catholic Church takes a stand.  Humour must also be used with care, as we do not agree about what is legitimate.  Living here in England,  my use of humour has become potentially explosive.  Which I’m sorry about, because much of English humour in my opinion is often the funniest and cleverest in the world.

Several weeks ago I sent an email to our family listserve asking if their opinions about Iraq had changed as mine have over the last few years.  Criticizing President Bush, up to this point, has been off-limits because of his support for anti-abortion and anti-gay legislation, so I wasn’t sure if Iraq could get through the barrier.  So far the discussion has been going forward without seeming to threaten the fault lines of our family structure. 

It’s amazing how difficult it is to respect someone with whom you fundamentally disagree.  I suspect each of us is working on suppressing epithets like “stupid,” “going to hell,” “bigoted,” and “arrogant.”  My own feeling is that if a family like ours can’t learn to communicate with each about important issues, we have little to suggest to the Israelis and Palestinians, the Shias and Sunnis, the Christians and Muslims, even the Catholics and Protestants.   In fact, Northern Ireland, after 35 years, just might be able to teach us something.

May 6, 2007

Vietnam and Iraq

Filed under: Worries — theotheri @ 3:04 pm

Last night I read the Economist’s obituary for David Halberstam.  He was a journalist with the New York Times who greatly influenced my convictions – or more correctly, the convictions of hundreds of thousands of Americans, that the Vietnam war was wrong.  I was a member of that large idealist movement that held support parties for conscientious objectors sent to jail, for whom protest songs and peace marches almost became a way of life, and who elected a Congress who eventually ended the war by cutting off the funds that it was consuming.

When the United States invaded Iraq, most of my friends and family said “Vietnam.”  I didn’t think Vietnam, I thought World War II, and believed the reports that Saddam Hussein was on the brink of using weapons of mass destruction, just as Hitler had been on the brink of developing the atomic bomb.  I thought that we could go into a completely foreign country and depose a despot, who like Hitler, gassed and murdered his own people by the thousands.

I thought we could not possibly make the mistake of another Vietnam, that Iraq would be different.  But as I read the Economists’ excerpt from Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest,” written in 1972 about Vietnam, I can’t help but feel we didn’t learn after all, and that it is the same all over again.  We still thought we were too big, too powerful, that the American way was too alluring for Iraqis to turn down:

“Time was on the side of the enemy, and we were in a position of not being able to win, not being able to get out…only being able to lash out…And so the war went on, tearing this country;  a sense of numbness seemed to replace an earlier anger.  There was, Americans were finding, no light at the end of the tunnel, only greater darkness.” 

I believe now we have betrayed ourselves and the best of what we believe in.  This is not a victory we deserve to win.

May 5, 2007

Thoughts about the younger generation

Filed under: Growing Old,Worries — theotheri @ 4:11 pm

My 22-year old niece is visiting us this week to study for exams at the University of London where she is spending a year.  She says political correctness in the United States has gone so far that students studying Martin Luther King don’t know he was Black, because people are uncomfortable about openly referring to a person’s racial and ethnic characteristics even when the approach is positive.

She thinks “celebrating” our different cultures, which is her definition of multi-culturalism, is a better alternative.  I agree her description of the current American version of political correctness sounds ghastly.  But multi-culturalism as it has been implemented here in Britain for the last ten years hasn’t been successful in making diverse groups comfortable with each other either.

I asked her how she would approach honour killings that are a real problem in some parts of Britain, or enforced marriages, or teachers wearing a full face veil in class.  She had no answers to these dilemmas – or indeed any real appreciation of how intractable they are sometimes.   Wherever we humans gather, respecting our differences is a tough demand, especially if we don’t like the values or customs of another group.

She reminded me of myself at that age. I was so sure I was smarter, more insightful, and probably of a higher moral calibre than the grey-haired generation.  Now I am rarely confidant that what I think is best even resembles the right answer.

May 4, 2007

Who are our children?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 3:57 pm

The residue of the anesthetic has left me feeling as if I have a slight case of the flu,  so I’ve had a low-key day.  I read about another town center that has installed a device that emits an unpleasant sound that only those under 25 can hear.  The idea is to move loitering gangs of kids on to another location.

I somehow feel this is a symptom of a society that does not love its children.  These kids are bored, need to get out of the house and have nowhere to go for constructive or stimulating activity.  So how do we solve the problem?  Treat them like the vermin we repel with “environmentally friendly” sound emitters?  But our children are not rats or mosquitoes or even stray cats or pigeons.

I understand the problem, even the real dangers, of gangs of kids aimlessly looking for amusement.  But the solutions demand more of us than ordering some device on the internet to install up alongside a CCTV.  My first response is that I personally must do something as a responsible citizen of the human community.  But I pause.  Last week a mother lost custody of her children after a tape showing her, a sister, and, if I remember correctly, her grandmother pitting her two-year-old son against a three-year-old daughter.  They were encouraged to hit each other and fight, and when the boy started to cry was taunted as a wimp.  The adults apparently thought it was great fun.  I find this incident stuns me into silence.  Do I really know how to handle a problem of this appalling parental ineptitude?

I find myself distrustful of rushing out in a burst of moral rectitude.  We think we know best so often, and from banning fox hunting and animal research to invading Iraq, we act out of terrifying hubris and ignorance.  Perhaps the first step is to concentrate on being aware of the young people in our society as fellow travelers in this life.  Then perhaps I might understand better how to respond to the loitering gangs who, for whatever reason, do not seem to respect anyone but themselves.

I am sure of one thing:  It takes a lot of effort to belong to a society that takes responsibility for its kids.  We are not going to solve the problem with CCTV cameras and sound emitters.  

April 27, 2007

Weed-free Worry

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 1:12 pm

Cathy phoned last night with the news that she got an all clear on her MRI.  And I have entered a period of calmness about my eye surgery next Wednesday.  It’s fortuitous because it is too cold today to work in the garden much.  I discovered that I’ve been tending what has turned out to be a cheeky weed for the last year, and consigned a Scottish thistle to another life in the compost.  Appearances do deceive. 

Anyway, I often prefer cleaning and inside projects to gardening to work through my worries.  Today is one of those luxurious “miscellaneous jobs” days.

April 25, 2007

Big Dollop of Hope

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 4:24 pm

Today opened with two bits of seriously encouraging news.  The preview report to my sister C is encouraging.  Not final yet, but the situation looks rather better than worse.  The second is a total surprise.  A woman who had eye surgery with MP Snead last August sent a comment on this blog saying that if anyone can help me, it is this man, who is brilliant, considerate, and amazing.  It is a confirmation of the conclusion I too had reached after my initial consultation with him.  But I have not yet anything but a hunch to back me up.  Lizz says her surgery for a mucular hole was a success.  So I’m pretty sure he’s not just sticking needles in people’s eyes and striking it lucky.

I do feel now if it is my fate to lose my vision so I can’t read, I can live with it.  Not like it one little bit, but eventually come to terms with it.  What I couldn’t bear was that the operation would fail because it had been bungled by an incompetent surgeon.

Who would have thought that a five-sentence comment posted by someone I don’t even know could be so strengthening.  My own surgery is a week today. 

April 24, 2007


Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Survival Strategies,Worries — theotheri @ 4:39 pm

I went to the hospital eye center yesterday for the tests and measurements that have to be done in preparation for cataract surgery.  The staff is unusually willing to take time to discuss the tests, and we talked about research exploring the relationship between learning difficulties and the kind of eye problems I have had all my life and that plague so many children.

If I were still employed by a university, I would find an optician and suggest we apply for a grant to study the relationship between spatial and reading skills and vision problems.  With the specialized knowledge of an optician, and the specialized knowledge I have as a cognitive psychologist, it would be possible to do much more detailed research than has been done by optomitrists’ treatment centers thus far.

My worry about whether I am going to be able to read after surgery has been displaced by worry about my sister C who had follow-up tests yesterday to clarify some dodgy shadows on her mammogram.  I spent most of today furiously gardening trying to keep my worry under some reasonable control.  The medical world offers so many possibilities and so much hope, but it also brings a new kind of anxiety and trauma that even our grandparents didn’t have.  It’s when modern medicine says “no, there’s nothing more we can do” that the true terror has to be confronted. 

April 23, 2007

Different perspective on my worries

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Just Stuff,Worries — theotheri @ 10:58 am

My sister C. is having another test following her mammography last week.  She is worried, because we have a very heavy genetic background of cancer in our family, including two other sisters with breast cancer, one of whom died.  My mother died of colon cancer at 49, leaving ten children between the ages of 6 and 20.  I was 19, and as the oldest sister had a special relationship with C whom I loved most especially – her unique sense of humor, her intelligence, her vulnerability. 

I almost broke down in tears yesterday thinking about the possibility of her having cancer.  It puts my worries about cataract surgery in a different perspective.  I’m having pre-surgery diagnostic tests tomorrow, but I’m much more worried about C’s diagnosis than mine right now.

April 21, 2007

Do we need guns?

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Worries — theotheri @ 4:31 pm

I have watched with horror the tragedy of the murders at Virginia Tech.  32 shot dead in their classrooms and as many injured.  Here in England, the coverage in all the media is no less than I suspect it is in the States.  But few people can understand the American love affair with the gun.

I was stalked once by a student who came and sat on the stairs of my apartment building for hours.  I wasn’t afraid that anybody was carrying a knife or gun.  These days I think I might not be so sanguine. 

I doubt this shooting will have any effect on gun legislation in the States, though.  And I’m not convinced that outlawing the carrying of some guns is desirable even if it were possible.  Yet I do wonder if it is really necessary to defend the rights of all US citizens to carry AKA rifles and other weapons designed specifically for war? 

On the other hand, during the foot-and-mouth crisis over here when the military was called in by authorities in London to help slaughter millions of sheep, I knew that kind of thing could never happen in the States.  Farmers would have met the military at the farm gates with their own weapons rather than let them in with the law-abiding anguish they did over here.   

And I don’t like the idea of the military being the only people in a society that have legitimate access to guns.  Governments simply can’t be trusted over the long-term to be given that kind of unassailed power.


April 18, 2007

Egocentric View of My World

Filed under: Cataracts: a story,Growing Old,Uncategorized,Worries — theotheri @ 8:46 pm

I’ve been trying not to think about it too much this week, but this evening I am seeing the consultant in Cambridge about my cataracts.  The first question is whether he thinks surgery can help and if he’s willing to do it.  The second is whether I’m willing to risk submitting to surgery by someone I know almost nothing about. 

I know this is not the biggest problem in the world.  It’s just that it’s potentially the biggest problem in my world.  It’s amazing how much bigger problems get as they get closer to home.  My worry about the possibility that I won’t ever be able to read again is at the moment greater than my worry about disaster in Iraq or the mass murders in Virginia Tech or even Darfur.  I would like to believe I were more altruistic than that, but the humbling truth is that I am at the absolute center of my universe.

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