Thursday, January 31, 2008

a tool on a push-bike

I cycle to work. This morning I rode past a woman with two beautiful large dogs in Eikibin park. They were well behaved and off their leashes – and rightfully so, it was a big park. One of the dogs – ‘Rusty’ – was on the bike path and in my way. Another cyclist was coming from the opposite direction and Rusty was also in his way. The woman, about ten feet from the path, had stopped, held the second dog, and was calling for Rusty. I slowed down smiled at the happy dog as I carefully went by him – he was awesome. He was sniffing something in the grass – more important than his owner - and his wagging tail was taking up about half of my path.

Then I looked up and saw the second cyclist. He was a middle aged man, twig-skinny, and wearing only ridiculous neon spandex. And he was furious. He rang a loud bell several times at the dog and snarled at the lady “Come on woman!!” as he went by.

I wanted to stop and shout back “Settle down there Armstrong!”. If he looked back I could add “You’re a tool!”. At ten years younger and ten inches taller I am pretty safe telling ‘Lance’ what I think of him. I would avoid swearing because that would only help Lance’s case. All he could do about my insult is ride away - even more angry. I would have also loved to stop and talk to the lady. I would pet ‘Rusty’ and say something witty like “What a beautiful dog. Don’t give that old fart a second thought. He’s control-obsessed. His wife probably left him for a happier man, his kids don’t call, and all that he has left to live for is fat free yogurt, the office, and the pride of getting to the office early without contributing to carbon emissions.”

Also, is Lance not in the exact same demographic that also sits in little Mazda Miatas and gets furious with cyclists on the road? Why all this anger in middle-aged men? It appears to me that both wealthy men and poor men are generally much happier than the ‘almost-made-its’ with perhaps some uncertainty-of-purpose in life. Livin' might not be easy but to rage on innocent people? Really? And I am not against all anger - some situations certainly do call for it. For example, I do not feel that Lance would benefit from a big hug and some sympathy. Hugs are for people with low self-esteem living always on the edge of fierce defensiveness. That is not lance. Lance is all about pre-emptive offense and he has confidence to spare. A better solution to Lance would be public disrespect – an anti-Lance attitude from the rest of us. Maybe even some ridicule. People like Lance give all cyclists a bad name. Kate walks to work and generally hates cyclists because she has been yelled at and almost run over a few times in recent months.

I can offer a simple list of rules for effective cycling: 1. Be reasonable and polite. There, that covers it.

When you approach a pedestrian from behind ring a bell early and if your path is cleared slow down anyway and say ‘thank you’ or ‘cheers’ as you go by – how difficult is that? If your path is still blocked - relax, slow down, say 'excuse me mate' - perhaps someone is tuned out and thinking about better days, perhaps a few people having a good conversation. No walker gets any benefit or joy from slowing you down. Why, why, why the rage? In some parts of Europe all cyclists stay on the road – and all cars are polite to them. In these countries cars will gladly slow down to bicycle-speed for minutes to avoid risking any injury. Here too many drivers are impatient. I love to jump on the road when there is room but when I feel like I am impeding traffic I use the sidewalk – it’s the most sensible attitude I can think of - but I always show respect to people on foot. In Brisbane we also have some awesome ‘bike paths’. Some are 'shared' with walkers and some are for just bikes but people like Lance are ruthless in their treatment of all of these as ‘bike-only highways’. They have no problem verbally abusing pedestrians, or dogs, as they fly by. I’m disgusted – I hate being in any way associated with these tools. Sometimes, if a walking path is crowded, I love walking on an adjacent bike path and fueling their rage.

And if you are reading this – Lance - please make an effort to settle down. Sleep in tomorrow, put your feet up right now, eat more ice cream and bacon, call your mom, purchase looser less-reflective clothing. Buy your wife or daughter some flowers. Borrow some sugar form next-door and sprinkle it on your multi-grain cereal. And just for today, forget about the stock market and read the comics again. And bike slower or find a race track.

Sadly - I said nothing to Lance this morning. And I’m sorry to say I also did not stop and talk to the lady. But I did intervene in a similar situation some weeks ago and I am becoming ever more likely to do so again. Actually – if I see the same woman with ‘Rusty’ tomorrow – I’ll stop and tell her how I feel. Better late than never.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

why the writers are on strike

Dear Lord, the Gods have been good to me. As an offering, I present these milk and cookies. If you wish me to eat them instead, please give me no sign whatsoever... Thy will be done.
Today I will try to remind you of some of the best lines ever written for television - and I'll start with Homer Simpson:

The problem in the world today is communication - too much communication!

It's not easy to juggle a pregnant wife and a troubled child, but somehow I managed to squeeze in eight hours of TV a day.

I am so smart! S-M-R-T!

I'm like that guy who single-handedly built the rocket & flew to the moon. What was his name? Apollo Creed?

I've gone back in time to when dinosaurs weren't just confined to zoos.

- Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins.
- Homer Simpson, smiling politely.

God bless those pagans.

- Homer, we're going to ask you a few simple yes or no questions. Do you understand?
- Yes.

And that's when Scully’s lie detector blows up. And I nearly fell over the first time I saw that!

Finally, a way to combine my love of helping people with my love of hurting people.
(Homer's take on on starting a security company.)

Bart, with $10,000, we'd be millionaires! We could buy all kinds of useful things!

Son, when you participate in sporting events, it's not whether you win or lose: it's how drunk you get.

Lisa, Vampires are make-believe, like elves, gremlins, and eskimos.

Remember that postcard Grandpa sent us from Florida of that alligator biting that woman's bottom? That's right - we all thought it was hilarious. But it turns out we were wrong. That alligator was sexually harassing that woman.

Marge, there's an empty spot I've always had inside me. I tried to fill it with family, religion, community service, but those were dead ends! I think this chair is the answer.

But Marge, what if we chose the wrong religion? Each week we just make God madder and madder.

- I have a great way to solve our money woes. You rent your womb to a rich childless couple. If you agree, signify by getting indignant.
- Are you crazy? I'm not going to be a surrogate mother.
- C'mon, Marge, we're a team. It's uter-US, not uter-YOU.

- Look everyone! Now that I'm a teacher I've sewn patches on my elbows.
- Homer that's supposed to be leather patches on a tweed jacket, not the other way around. You've ruined a perfectly good jacket.
- Incorrect, Marge. Two perfectly good jackets!

- Homer, the plant called. They said if you don't show up tomorrow don't bother showing up on Monday.
- Woo-hoo. Four-day weekend.

- Dad, don't you think you're overreacting?
- Don't you think you're ‘under-reacting’?
- This conversation is over.
- This conversation is ‘under’.

- Do we have any food that wasn't brutally slaughtered?
- Well, I think the veal died of loneliness.

Bart - I smell a museum.
Homer - Yeah, good things don't end with 'eum,' they end with 'mania' or 'teria.'

Homer - Hey boy! Wanna play catch?
Bart - No thanks dad.
Homer - When a son doesn't want to play catch with his father something is definitely wrong.
Grandpa Simpson - I'll play catch with you!
Homer - Go home.

I’m a public servant so I’m not permitted to use my own judgement in any way.

- Put out an APB on a Uosdwis R. Dewoh. Uh, better start with Greektown.
- That's "Homer J. Simpson", Chief. You're reading it upside down.
- Cancel that APB. But, uh, bring back some of them gyros.
- Uh, Chief? You're talking into your wallet.

I hope this has taught you kids a lesson: kids never learn!

Fat Tony is a cancer on this fair city! He is the cancer and I am the ... uh ... what cures cancer?

Marge - [on radio] Husband on murderous rampage. Send help. Over.
Wiggum - Whew, thank God that's over. I was worried for a little bit.

When i grow up, I want to be a principal or a caterpillar.

Hi, Super Nintendo Chalmers.

I stand by my racial slur.

Attempted murder, now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry?

Lawyer - Well, what about that tatoo on your chest? Doesn't it say Die, Bart, Die?
Sideshow Bob - No, that's German for 'The Bart, The."
Parole Judge - No one who speaks German can be an evil man! Parole Granted!

Dozens of people are gunned down each day, but until now, none of them was important. At three pm Friday, local autocrat C. Montgomery Burns was shot following a tense confrontation at the town hall. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was then taken to a better hospital where his condition was upgraded to ‘alive’.

- Quick Smithers. Bring the mind eraser device!
- You mean the revolver, sir?
- Precisely.

I'll keep it short and sweet - family, Religion, friendship, these are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.

- Hello, my name is Barney Gumble, and I'm an alcoholic.
- Mr Gumble, this is a girl scouts meeting.
- Is it? Or is it you girls can't admit that you have a problem?

Hi. I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such self help tapes as 'Smoke yourself thin' and 'Get some confidence, Stupid!'

Hi. I'm Troy McClure, you might remember me from such public service videos as 'Designated Drivers, the Lifesaving Nerds' and 'Phony Tornado Alarms Reduce Readiness.'

Don't kid yourself, Jimmy. If a cow ever got the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!

- My new movie is me, standing in front of a brick wall for 90 minutes. It cost 80 million dollars to make.
- How do you sleep at night?
- On top of a pile of money, with many beautiful women

Any half-assed musician can play a cover tune just like any blogger can get a laugh using Simpson's lines. The real talent lies in original thought – certainly in entertainment - everybody else should be working for the writers. Who is responsible for making a Simpson’s DVD worth buying? Cartoonists and voice people are talented but - if I’m not mistaken - they just do what they’re told. Do they not?

Creativity is also pretty useful in scientific research and on the soccer field but is far less important a golf course, or in during brain surgery. Originality is great in an entrepreneur but is usually not an admired quality in a business accountant - except maybe in a tax attorney. But in television - I believe good writers should be rich!

And now the writers are on strike – and good for them. Television has been awesome in recent years and it’s not just because Kiefer Sutherland is a good actor or Evangeline Lily is hot. Why did ‘Heroes’ work without a single well-know actor? Because it had a sick plotline.

But television studios love the strike – no overhead expenses and plenty of DVD’s to sell us so we can all ‘catch up’. If I was to stop buying series on DVD and switch to computer games or books or even ‘outdoor activities’ - I bet it would be a very short strike.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

huperzine A

"Jake, a chiropractor can fix eighty percent of back pain after six to eight months of regular treatment and eighty percent of back injuries heal themselves in six to eight months. You might as well take that thirty-five dollars, burn it, and rub the ashes on your back!”
- Scott Millington (medical student, a few years ago)

I have spent a few days buried neck-deep in a stack of papers lurnin’bout Alzheimer’s disease. I can’t tell you why this has been the case but I can easily share a story with you which I hope you will appreciate - the story of huperzine A.

This story has a little bit to do with Chinese folk medicine. Many of us really, really want to believe that ‘alternative medicines’ work but those damned doctors and scientists keep telling us that if they worked there would be no need to call them ‘alternative’.

Here's the problem: sick people are not ‘ordinary customers’ they are ‘patients’. They are vulnerable - and they are paying for a complex biological activity that they do not clearly understand. The only purchase guarantee they usually have is the word of their 'doctor'. Cheating a sick person is different from cheating any other type of consumer – it is unusually cruel and pathetic. It is one of the lowest forms of evil. And yet it is done all around us – every day. Rarely do homeopaths agree to submit their miracle pills and herbs to simple, double-blind, placebo-controlled, myth-busting clinical trials. That is where magical herbs die and only drugs remain.

Dementia is scary – the progressive decline of cognitive function. It is the loss of memory, concentration, functional abilities – sanity. Contrary to age-old wisdom dementia is not a ‘normal’ part of aging. Not even close. Most of us will die quick witted with a mind full of vivid memories. About ten percent of us will get dementia assuming we live long enough to do so. Seventy percent of dementias are caused by Alzheimer’s disease, the rest by Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Vascular dementia, Alcohol and a few others. None are caused by ‘nothing’.

Until a few decades ago we knew ‘nothing’ about the inner workings of Alzheimer’s disease. Basically neurons died and brains got smaller. That’s not rocket science. Also - brain tissue under a microscope showed visible ‘plaques’ and ‘filaments’ but that didn’t help much either. Today things are a little different. Scientists really know their diseases. Biologists love big words – huge, ridiculous words. Watch:

Neuropathologicaly, Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the presence of extracellular neuritic plaques composed of β-amyloid peptide and intracellular neurofibrillary tangles composed of abnormally phosphorylated tau protein. Neurochemically, this is accompanied by a deficit in cholinergic neurotransmission, particularly in the basal forebrain.

Yeah – thanks. And did you say 'tau' protein? Why does that protein get such a 'small word'? We now know a lot about Alzheimer's disease and the genetic and biochemical mechanisms that cause it. We are learning more about them every day. But the sad reality is this: thousands of scientists with billions of dollars, millions of mice, many different mazes, and lots of big words have been highly mobilized and motivated for decades and yet the truth remains essentially the same - we still can’t do anything about the plaques and the filaments. There is no cure or method of prevention of Alzheimer’s.

But we are not completely empty handed. We have understanding - we have progress – and we have a few somewhat-useful drugs! Actually there are four drugs. And they are all ‘symptomatic’ which means they are helpless against the ‘plaques’ and the ‘filaments’ and can’t change the course of the disease but they can make what is left of your brain work better. The four pills are: tacrine, donepezil, rivastigmine, and galanthamine. They are all proven to help AD patients remember things and ‘think gooder’. These are, to my knowledge, the only ‘officially proven’ hope for a sick person. But there are some issues. Tacrine was first (approved in 1993) and it causes serious liver damage so your doctor would have to be demented himself to prescribe it to you today. The others are newer and better. They are easy on the liver and only cause moderate combinations of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, headache, dizziness, and sleep disturbance.

Here’s how they work. Acetylcholine is a fancy name for a handy little neurotransmitter. Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that naturally degrades acetylcholine. These four drugs inhibit this enzyme leaving more acetylcholine for you to ‘think’ with. It’s fairly simple.

Actually it was fairly simple – until the biochemical supernerds started to dig a little deeper. I just spent a week buried in some heavy, heavy journals and I like what I leaned enough that I have decided to share.

It turns out that some ‘acetylcholinesterase inhibitors’ now appear to be doing some 'other good stuff' that the patient didn't pay for. Some bonus activity for your dollar – much like an unexpected free upgrade to the first-class cabin on an overnight flight. This blog is no place for the details but essentially the underlying processes of Alzheimer’s are complicated and interconnected and some of these drugs – somehow – help with the ‘plaques’ and maybe even the ‘fillaments’. These are the first examples of actual 'changes' in the course of the disease. The amount of supporting literature filling up journals in the past five years is insane (no pun intended). Last year alone had multiple massive reviews summarizing hundreds of recent studies about how ‘old drugs’ are doing ‘new things’ that we didn’t know about until now. It’s pretty cool to read (if you like big words). Seems there are a lot of mice finding a lot of cheese at the end of the maze all over the world these days. Alzheimer’s research is a pretty hot place to be right now. Anyway – the drugs don’t ‘cure’ Alzheimers but for the first time ever they can at least potentially ‘in principle’ cure it! So the race is on to find new – better - cholinesterase inhibitors that do 'extra stuff' and come closer to actually ‘curing’ this beast.

Now to the title compound – ‘huperzine A’. This is an anti-Alzheimer’s drug already approved in China and in American phase II clinical trials right now. It is definitely not a cure - but it is probably as good, if not better than current drugs. And it has an interesting history.

The compound comes from a Chinese herb called huperzia serrata – a ‘club moss’ (whatever the heck that means). The herb is an ancient Chinese folk medicine called “Qian Ceng Ta” that has been used for centuries to treat lots of stuff including swelling, fever, blood disorders and - you guessed it - various forms of insanity and dementia. For many years now, the herb has been officially sold as a diatery supplement with claims that it treats memory loss and mental impairment.

In 1986 huperzine A was isolated from the huperzia serrata, characterized, and shown by Chinese scientists to improve memory and learning in mice (or rats or guinea pigs or cats – I don’t know). This was soon confirmed by tests in the US and Switzerland – presumably because some people didn't trust Chinese mice. In 1989 some frustrated-overworked-underpaid graduate student of organic chemistry at the University of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, synthesized huperzine A for the first time in his fume hood (or perhaps on his bench). This probably made his mean boss very happy and proud. After 1989 the ball was rolling. It rolled fast in China and a little slower in the rest of the world - but it rolled. There are now more than 500 academic publications detailing various syntheses of huperzine A, preparation of analogues, and biological testing on assays, cell cultures, mice, mokeys, and finally 'forgetful people'. The compound is becoming 'kind of a big deal'. There are now more than 80 international patents related to huperazine A – and 20 of them were filed last year. It was officially approved in 'pill form' in China a few years ago but, like I said, it has been taken in 'herb form' there for many years. US clinical trials are in the works. Some doctors in the US 'prescribe' it already because it is available on the shelves in their local China Town. Worldwide marketing rights are owned by ‘Marco Hi-Tech Joint Venture’ which is a global trading and finance firm formed to import huperazine A from China.

Huperzine A is not a cure for Alzheimers – it is just a treatment. It is a cholinesterase inhibitor like the rest. It has lately been demonstrated by some researchers to also do some other ‘extra good stuff'. And it does have the same nausea, diarrhea, etc. side-effects as all of the other cholinesterase inhibitors – although it sounds like they are less severe than the others.

I'm trying to make an important point – when 'alternative medicine' does work it is no longer called that - it graduates from 'alternative' school and receives the title of drug! I told you this whole story because I believe it proves that the global (or 'first world' or 'western' or whatever) medical community is more than happy to accept ‘chinese folk medicine’ if it actually works. And it is easy to prove that something works. Pharmaceutical companies are not retarded – most ‘folk medicines’ have been tested and re-tested and they continue to be 'alternative'. I believe there are very few effective unproven medicines left and if you are buying any I hope they are not expensive because you are probably being cheated - unless you consider the 'placebo effect' to be effective - which is fair I suppose. But believing you are better or even 'feeling' better is not the same as 'being' better. It might be interesting and even humorous to observe what happens when a doctor gives a patient a 'sugar pill' instead of a 'cold medicine' but it is neither interesting nor funny to play that game with a cancer, or with high blood pressure. Nor obesity for that matter - everywhere I look I see shameless theaft form vulnerable fat people.

And just to be clear - this argument does not apply to 'medicine men' in poor countries where people have no available alternatives to herbal medicine. I also support anyone offering exercise or diet expertise to people who are not ill. Yoga and vegetables and not-smoking are obviously healthy. The 'cheaters' I refer to are homeopaths and other shameless liars who use tricks and gimmicks to sell magnetic bracelets, mysterious supplements, or magical diet pills to Canadians or Australians who are either too vulnerable or too gullible to say no. If that sounds harsh - good.

That being said - most rules have rare exceptions and huperzine A appears to have been an example of such a case. Right up until very recently it was indeed an 'effective alternative medicine'. We know that because it is now a drug. Or almost a drug (if you tend to wait for the FDA). I suppose that this 'exception' was great news for the the many forgetful old Chinese people that have taken huperzine for years.

And as you might have gathered based on the quote form Scotty - I have visited a few chiropractors in my day. Especially when the volleyball was in full swing. I do believe they helped me... well... maybe. That's a tough one to call - pain sucks - even a little bit relief might be worth thirty-five dollars to me. They do have a 'college' after all - and some of them even use 'ultrasound' and act like sensible physiotherapists. I personally draw the line at not-letting a chiropractor anywhere near my neck!

Thanks for listening.

Monday, January 14, 2008

life is funny

When I began this blog I intended to have some fun and share a few personal stories with friends and family. Lately I have used it to dive head first into some serious topics. No longer! I will find a different outlet for that. Here, I will continue to report on our interesting or funny Aussie experiences.

Below is a picture of the Brisbane Busway. It is a road used only by busses which runs beside the major highway in and out of the city. I think it is very well designed.

This sign is found inside every bus.

If I was illiterate in English I would be forced to interpret the sign using the three images below the text. Look closely at these images for a moment.

The first one clearly represents a recent amputee who has escaped from a hospital. Disabled people have prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs, not crutches and stumps. Why would an amputee escape from the hospital and get onto my bus? Perhaps he is a criminal, injured during some daring crime. He is probably angry and possibly dangerous. He can have my seat. The second image is not of an old woman but rather a tall woman with a bad back and lunch pail. Perhaps she suffers from Spinabifida. She should have my seat. The third image is of a female with a big booty. I suspect she may be a dancer from a rap video. Being in a rap video does not entitle her to a front seat on the bus. Sir Mix-a-Lot should have bought her a car. At first glance she looked a little bit like a pregnant woman but then I noticed the mini-skirt.

By the way, if a severely pregnant woman ever did step onto my bus – even in a mini-skirt – I would not need a sign. She could have my seat even if I was an escaped amputee with Spinabifita.

Below is a picture of a brand new parking lot outside of a shiny new multimillion dollar research facility at Griffith University. It is part of an expansion of an area of campus known as the Brisbane Innovation Park where I work. Let me repeat that one more time: the ‘Brisbane Innovation Park’.

The parking area is clearly big enough, and intended for, two rows of cars. Hmmm. Hmmm. Did someone graduate at the bottom of the class from the Forest Gump school of parking lot design? Or did the architect just hand a crayon to a three-year-old and walk away?

I swear I took this photograph myself three days ago a hundred meters from my lab. Here's a picture of Sean in front of it as proof.

Life is funny.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Dr. Tim Flannery

For many yeas now I have known that the carbon cycle is not some sort of ‘fancy bicycle’ – I mix chemicals for a living. I have resisted ‘reading’ about climate change because I watched Al Gore’s movie and I believe him. What use could reading any more depressing evidence be? I now humbly admit that some of the most recent information about climate solutions and ‘global response’ was surprising and new to me. Maybe it’s because I lived so close to the US.

I encourage you, next time you are in a book store – to swing by the ‘tiny’ science section. Pick up little a 2006 book by Tim Flannery called ‘We are the Weather Makers’ (Easily confused with a bigger, older book by the same author called “The Weather Makers’ which I assume is also pretty good). Don’t buy it just yet. Instead, flip immediately to the final section. Section 5 – ‘The Solution’. It is a short read – 23 pages. Three short chapters: “Bright as Sunlight, Light as Wind’, ‘Nuclear?’, and ‘Hybrids, minicats and contrails.’. I recommend you read it on the spot. If you learn something new – have a seat and flip back to chapter 20 – ‘The three tipping points’ and read foreward from there until someone stops you. Then you might consider buying it :)

Tim Flannery is a paleontologist and professor at Macquarie University in Sydney. He was named ‘Australian of the Year' in 2007. I don't know who does the 'naming'. It was a bit surprising considering that he heavily rips into Australia’s refusal to sign Kyoto and to ease up on the ‘coal powered’ grid. I decided to read his book because he is highly recommended by other authors I have liked: Jared Diamond, Bill Bryson, Karl Kruszelnicki, and David Suzuki.

In other news - Kate and I miss snow. One of our good Brizzy friends, Rob, has just come back from a christmas trip with his brothers to Europe. He showed us videos of his first attempts at snow boarding in France. It made me want to fall on my face in the snow. I remembered a great little snow storm back in London last winter. This was Kate's car.

How cute is this girl. None of that around here. Far from it. Cheers.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs

Where were 'world history' and 'global economics' in high school? I was force-fed a lot of Shakespeare but nothing of the remarkable recent history of India, China, Russia, Japan, or a hundred other countries including all of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South and Central Americas. Why not? The globe is not that big is it? Couldn’t you cover the relevant issues in one book? One course? I notice global politics on the news every day. The world is a busy place – we all appear to be connected. Why is modern world history not taught to Canadian children? I also learned nothing about ancient Greece or Rome; and very little about WWI or II and nothing about the Cold War. I certainly know nothing of the economics of these conflicts. No teacher ever defined Communism. Why not? Elections seem like a very sensible way to decide who spends our tax money - but nobody ever contrasted democracy with the ‘others’ and showed me hard facts. My grade six teacher told me that there would be 16 billion people on Earth by 2005. I suppose that makes him a liar. Is 'overpopulation' even a real problem? Did birth control already solve it? Is it really that simple? I know Canada doesn't produce enough children. Neither does Australia. Why not? Aren’t some European governments now paying women to be mothers? Are even Catholic women are refusing to have kids in Europe? That's not possible right? And why are there so many children in Africa? Can’t we dump a billion packages of birth control pills on Kenya? Would that work? No. Actually, it would not. Women in industrialized countries choose to have fewer kids. It appears to be a natural phenomenon the details of which make pretty solid sense. This seems wonderfully convenient. I guess some things are. This ‘industrial women’s choice’ angle is new to me. I consider myself to be highly educated but lately I am beginning to realize that I don't know much!


For example: Before my family immigrated to Canada I lived the first six years of my life in Poland. I did not learn until now (at 29) that twenty years ago Poland was forgiven half of its international debt - 20 billion dollars – mostly by German banks. My country, in my lifetime was handed 20 billion dollars for free, and nobody told me. But Poland is not a third world country - why did they need debt forgiven? I have a better question: how did Poland become a democracy? Did they convince the Communists to just 'let them go'? How? I don't remember a war? The truth is - I have absolutely no idea how it happened. I just heard 'Bravo! Solidarnosc! [Solidarity!]" and then it was done. What happened to all of the Communist state-owned factories and stores? Who owns them now? What the heck happened in Poland?

And while we’re at it

And while we're at it what happened - or rather 'is happening' - to Russia? And who woke up China? They have a big red flag but they don't act like Communists. What in the world is going on in China? China has no religions right? Doesn't India have every religion? But no athiests? Both China and India are industrialising very rapidly. How? Why? Why does my bank operate a call centre out of India? Why India and not Vietnam or Brazil? Did you know that Korea has millionaire pro-online-gamers? What? You heard me. And what in the world has happened between the United States and the Middle East – when, and why, did that get out of hand? The only modern conflict I have any understanding of is the one between Isreal and Palestine. That is not a mystery. It’s a ‘land’ thing – that at least makes sense.

Is there a 'point' coming soon?

Like it or not, you and I live in a rapidly changing world. The planet is busy. Keeping up with global affairs is a challenge. Making sense of them is even harder. CNN has one angle, the BBC has another, both are fighting for my attention. International news is depressing; very depressing. I prefer the NFL or Futurama. It is no less useful and far less sad (especially if you like the Pats). Do you ever take a step back and think about the big picture? What might life be like in thirty years? There is a lot to worry about. Today (after some editing and consideration) I will worry briefly about just one problem. Thirty thousand people died in Africa today – mostly children. Repeat that to yourself. What can you or I do about it? Ask this guy:

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs is a professor of economics at Columbia University in New York. He is director of something called the 'Earth Institute' which basically tries to solve all of the world's big problems. (And it is not a 'make believe' institute.) He is also economic adviser to the United Nations and to many troubled governments. It was sobering to learn that he is the ONLY academic that Time Magazine consistently ranks among the world's most influential people. He was a big deal in Poland in the late eighties. If you are Polish the details of his efforts are a must read. Wikipedia says that some of his advice is criticized by other academics and authors. It all made sense to me - but what do I know? In 2005 he published this:

The book was not what I expected. The author is not a ‘hippie’ with a world vision of the rich sharing with the poor and everybody hugging trees, dolphins, and each other. This book is primarily a lesson of modern world history. Dr. Sachs tells us what the heck has just happened and what is happening right now? He is personally involved in pretty much all of it. I knew embarrassingly little about this stuff. I was a blank slate. It was a bizarre feeling. Where have I been hiding these past few years? The book argues that ending third world poverty makes a lot more economic sense than people realize. The simple answer is - invest in Africa. It is true that billionaires are sharing the planet with starving children. Isn't it?

Dr. Sachs is an informed optimist - how cool is that! A reasonable, well-spoken man - and apparently in possession of what sure seems an awful lot like moral integrity. Plus he can add. I suspect that he has no financial need to sell books. Why does he bother to write them? Maybe he desires popularity? Maybe he wants to inform us just for the sake of informing us? What is the point of that? Maybe he thinks our opinion matters.

Debt forgiveness

Let me back up a bit to when Poland was handed 20 billion dollars for free in the late 80’s. This has no doubt helped Poland get back on its feet. Interest payments suck. It is January - we all know that. German banks agreed to forgive Polish debt partially because of a timely reminder of how their country was forgiven a huge amount of international debt forty years earlier. That is a big part of why Germany is prospering today. Many countries have been helped off the floor in recent history? Even the US has had debt forgiven - by France after the War of Independence. (Didn’t Will Smith make a cool space movie about that war?) Why does debt forgiveness happen? Why would any bank agree to forgive anything?


'Hyperinflation' is when you go to the grocery story to find a $10 loaf of bread. Then two days later it's $100. A few weeks later it costs $100000 for a loaf of bread (even un-sliced). This happens. It happened in Bolivia, Poland and many other places in the 80's. It occurs, as I understand it, when some 'economic thing' is broken, seriously broken, and a government has started to print money. Not for fun, but because it is the only option that delays collapse. Collapse? What exactly happens when a government goes bankrupt? A business owner can file for bankruptcy, liquidate, pay what debts he can and forget the rest. He is protected by law from creditors who must accept that they made a bad investment. Everybody learns. It sucks. Life goes on. Nobody dies. Nobody dies because our society has decided that death is an unfair punishment for bad business decisions. In contrast, if an entire country goes bankrupt, people generally start dying. Some people starve, others kill each other. If you own a gun you load it. Somebody usually controls at least one army, their guns are bigger than yours. There's probably no gas at the station? Is there food? Are there hospitals? Or schools? You might find yourself feeling a strong urge to find a Red Cross truck - and you'll walk. The anarchy or civil war or general human misery continues until eventually some sort of leadership emerges. The new leadership probably has another 'losing strategy'. And then you do it all again. It's 2008 - surely we must know the recipe for an exit for such a country? I was born into a country with a losing economic strategy, a Communist strategy. My parents were lucky enough to have the option to jump ship long before I would understand their motives.

Economic Strategies

Here’s an obvious question: can a country avoid a losing strategy by 'not playing the game' at all? Not trade with anyone and not industrialize. In fact, that exact tactic has been attempted. It was originally called the 'Third World' strategy and was adopted by many countries after WWII. The 'Second World' strategy was the name given to Communism - state owned business. A 'First World' strategy meant a decision to play on the global market. Dr. Sachs might argue that the great lesson of the last sixty years is that free market international trade appears to work best. According to his book - you don't even have to be a top team to be rich. You just have to play the game. Every team gets to have full grocery stores and empty hospital beds with fresh sheets. This ‘global game’ is not analogous to a ‘poker table’ - a zero sum game – it is more like the NHL. Every team in a healthy professional hockey league is rich. Sachs tells us that despite what many people believe rich countries don't usually get rich at the expense of extremely poor countries. The First World has nothing to gain from extreme poverty in the Third World. But all wealthy countries prosper together. Why is that possible? To be honest with you - I don't really understand it – but I think it’s true. Here is my own idiot explanation. Every team in the ‘pros’ wins because sunlight is free. Literally, energy - coal, oil, fresh water, food - it was all originally sunlight. Stay with me here. If energy is worth money (and it was - last time I checked my bills) then the sun is literally giving away free money every single day (unless you're British). That's it. That's all. Because of free sunlight we can all be rich.

The Bottom Line

Can everyone on Earth potentially play in the pros? Can our little planet sustain one big pro-league without 'melting the ice'? Climate change is a whole other mess. I don’t know the answers. Many scientists are skeptical about the future for all of us. I have no inclination toward real pessimism. I don't see how that could ever help. Certainly awareness and thoughtful purchases and votes make sense. And I have it on very good authority that Jeffrey Sachs is about to publish another book - in March 2008 called - 'Common Wealth - Economics of a Crowded Planet' in which he will tackle sustainable development and climate change. And this guy is smart.

Quotes from JS

You probably stopped reading this foolishness long ago. I suppose it doesn’t hurt if I finish with some quotes from the early chapters of 'The End of Poverty':

'Until the mid-1700's, the world was remarkably poor by any of today's standards. Life expectancy was extremely low; children died in vast numbers in the now rich countries as well as the poor countries... Episodes of hunger and extreme weather and climate fluctuations sent societies crashing. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire... was much like the rise and decline of all other civilizations before and since...'
"The key fact of modern times is not the 'transfer' of income from one region to another, by force or otherwise, but rather the overall 'increase' in world income, but at a different rate in different regions... Technology has been the main force behind the long-term increase in income in the rich world, not exploitation of the poor."
'What changed was was the onset of the Industrial Revolution... The steam engine
marked the decisive turning point of modern history... Isaac Newton's Principia
Mathematica in 1687, one of the most important books ever written... providing
the tools of calculus [to discover laws of the physical world]''
'The beauty of ideas is that they can be used over and over again, without ever being depleted.'
'World War I ... led to several cataclysmic events that cast their shadow over the rest of the century... it destabilized the Russian czarist regime, unleashing the Bolshevik revolution... [and so on].
'[today] half the world, including all of the rich world, is at or near the so-called replacement rate of fertility... High population growth leads to deeper poverty, and deeper poverty contributes to high fertility rates.' [It's a vicious cycle]
'When countries get their foot on the ladder of development, they are generally able
to continue the upward climb. All good things tend to move together... higher capital stock, greater specialization, more advanced technology, and lower fertility. If a country is trapped below the ladder, with the first rung too high off the ground, the climb does not even get started."

Enough. Read it yourself. Cheers.

And if you know me well and you are starting to become concerned about me - please don't be. I am not turning into some sort of activist or politician. I dislike protests and hate politics. I simply read a good book which I thought it was worth telling you about. I have no desire to start adopting orphans.


I have made numerous edits to this post. A bit unorthodox for blog post. I'm done. If I took out something you liked I'm sorry - I guess I didn't like it :) More likely it just didn't belong. For now - a book review is better than a long scattered rant. I'm still a little too uninformed to be ranting so much.

Friday, January 4, 2008

thoughts on 'optimism'

I think that optimism and confidence are good qualities. Cockyness is bad. I suppose I have all three. They are hard to separate. Cockyness bordering on arrogance can be really fun in friendly competition (assuming you are among people who understand the sarcasm and can take it). Outside of friendly volleyball or soccer or euchre I hope I am not arrogant. I dislike arrogance in professional sport but I understand it, especially in certain events like boxing or the 100m sprint. I think that statements like ‘I will win this game’ or ‘I will get a good job” are optimistic, confident, and they are cocky, but they are not arrogant. I have learned through sport that when I say ‘I will win’ and then I lose the world does not collapse around me. If instead I predict the loss or make no prediction I am less embarrassed and my opponent feels less satisfaction but the result (and not the prediction) is the only real item of consequence. Success is mainly a result of training BUT does the prediction itself have any bearing on result? Of course it does. Confidence improves performance. Fortunes have been made by merchants of this lesson. Optimists win and winning teaches optimism. To quote Fat Bastard: “It’s a vicious cycle”.

Where does it all begin? Is a child’s mind is a blank slate? Kate and I are talking about starting a family and we now have many friends with young children. It gets me thinking… and that is the source of this rant. I enjoy a good nature/nurture discussion or book. Lately I have time for books. In another life, I used to love defending ‘nature’ against Andy Wright who (as his 'mental-skills coach' title and sport-psychology study would dictate) believed that he could teach any healthy child to become Tiger Woods. I still disagree with Andy because sport is so physical. A common expression in volleyball circles is: “You can’t teach height” and the same is true for muscle recruitment (to a degree). But what about Tiger’s non-physical attributes? We are a product of what we learn much more so than any other animal. Academics are still sorting out the details: a little mouse brain is not a good model and the controlled human experiments that would be needed to get some good data are definitely a big no no. Today, after DNA sequencing and many decades of quality genetics research the nature/nurture argument is still an argument. We are physically different from each other and have different levels of hormones (which may predetermine stress or aggression) but the capacity of our minds is not easy to study. Genetically we are pretty much identical and there is virtually no genetic differences between human races - which is great if you tend to discriminate against ‘racists’ like I do. IQ tests tend to be at the center of much debate. Although IQ tests work – I like to think that they evaluate our environment much more than they do your genes. I have read
strong support for this, but debate continues today. I chose to look at it somewhat like Dawkins does: all genes exist because they survive. You might say that the purpose of ‘genes’ is survival. In the case of human beings genes have built a brain with a remarkable capacity to learn. That is their survival strategy. That is our inheritance. Children are super-learning-machines. They believe without question in St. Nick and the Tooth Fairy because they are programmed to learn and believe and accept all information from their parents and teachers. Learning capacity is our greates skill. That is why Darwin was able to step off the evolutionary treadmill and describe it to the rest of us. It is interesting to think that our genes have created a brain with the capacity for birth control. Whoops.

Because of our ability to learn it seems to me that happiness, optimism, kindness, compassion, wit or any other personality trait (desired or not) can be taught as easily as reading and writing. You are what you learn. And much of what you feel deep inside you is what you learned from your parents when you were a child. So here’s a case study in optimism:

Ziggy and Maria left Poland because they predicted that their children’s future would likely be pretty harsh. In Poland, in 1983, education and work was a given but wealth or even the comfort of a house, a car, or travel were not achievable. They had happy children but the prospect of happy grandchildren was looking slim. So my folks decided to ‘pull the chute’, to ‘bail’, (to ‘pyke’ as the Aussies would say) on their home and country and start fresh: new language, new jobs, no property, no savings, three young boys to feed. And I watched them succeed. Really succeed. That was my childhood. Maria decided to be a professional – it was difficult but obviously doable. Ziggy also succeeded by any definition of that word. My brothers and I owe them a big debt. How could I have grown up to be anything but an optimist.

And then there was sport. In Commie-Poland my dad spent a near decade training two or three times daily as a volleyballer. At the top level, only winning matters, all professional athletes are ‘professional winners’. In 1972 Poland won Olympic volleyball gold after two consecutive world championship titles. He was playing in the best volleyball league on Earth by far. In hockey-loving Canada, Ziggy found himself in small once-a-week city v-ball league on Tuesday nights. He loved the game too much to stop playing. I was a gym rat, I watched and learned. I think he played as much for me as he did for himself. I saw him do remarkable things on that court. It wasn’t really ‘fair’ for his opponents until he was in his late forties. He wasn’t flashy or arrogant and winning was enough; he got no pleasure from embarrassing weak teams. On the contrary, he was happy to teach anyone who asked for a lesson. He was an exceptional leader on the court. He rarely lost. I recall Canadian national team player Steve Smith showing up one night and Ziggy’s eyes lit up at the sight of a worthy opponent. Competition (for men more then women I think) is a fundamental human need. Not like food or sleep but like love and grandchildren. We can live without... but it just doesn't feel right. And you can mock ‘dumb jocks’ all you want but try arguing that sport is not a more productive outlet for a competitive urge than war or gambling. Assuming that the war is not necessary. I guess all wars feel ‘necessary’ to someone. That’s another blog post.

Ziggy learned how to win from his coaches. On the court he is an extreme optimist. I learned a lot form watching (and joining) him on that court. By the time I started playing soccer and volleyball at a reasonable level I had a selective memory. I forgot losses and remembered wins. This goes hand in hand with optimism and it has to be irritating to people. I know it irritates Kate. I firmly believe that I will win every volleyball game even though I clearly won’t. In beach volleyball the tournament format allows for only one winner and everybody else must finish their day with a loss. A selective memory is pretty vital to a positive outlook. I remember a few big losses in my past, and many many wins.

Optimism in sport might be most useful when opponents are equally matched. Sport (any sport) becomes a beautiful thing when both sides are brilliant and there is just one or two brief precious moments that decide the winner. I love those moments. Some tiny bit of luck or fortune often decides those games! Or does it? Does winning those games require confidence and optimism? Does losing requires a lack of these qualities? I sure hope so because those particular games are the most painful to lose I wouldn’t want to leave it up to ‘luck’.

Volleyball is pretty much done for me. Life goes on. I wonder if I’ll keep (and find a use for) an optimistic outlook on the rest of life. In any case I hope some confidence rubs off on my kids. I’m sure it will ;)

Thanks for listening. Here are some pictures from our recent travels. We finally got to see a roo.

This is a 'pretty-faced wallaby'.
We went hiking for a few days with our friends Alistair and Lib.

And here are Kate and I wet but smiling at the 'Woodford Folk Festival' (or 'dreadlock' festival or 'mud' festival or just 'hippie fest') where we spent New Years Eve. It was a lot of rain, some good music and lots of 'intersting' people.