Tales of Elderly Spouses

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Spring might be just around the corner but winter is still lurking nearby waiting to pounce. Before you let your guard down, I thought I’d offer some advice to keep you safe and warm – advice gathered from the stories of elderly spouses.

Don’t go out in the cold without enough warm clothing; especially don’t go out with wet hair as you lose 25% of your body heat through the top of your head. And the cold can make you sick. True? Only a little bit. As it turns out, getting cold can lower your immune response (as well as help you lose weight) but, as long as you don’t come in contact with a virus, you can’t catch a cold from the cold. Hypothermia is another story. But that won’t come about from a bare head – there simply isn’t enough blood flow up there to make a difference (for some less than others, I might add). Besides the colder you get, the more your body concentrates your warmth in the torso. Still, you could freeze your ears off if you’re not careful.

If you do catch that cold, chicken soup is a sure fire cure. Oddly enough, there is some truth to that – though chicken soup probably helps the flu more than a regular cold. The flu leads to dehydration (sweating, vomiting, the runs) and depletes your electrolytes. Chicken soup is liquid filled with salt and easily digested fats. At the very least it will make you feel less sick. And since chicken soup is almost always served to you by someone who cares, the emotional support actually will boost your own immune system.

Which brings us to hugs. We’ve all known those people who want to hug you all the time. Some of them are a bit creepy but no more so than some other members of the medical profession. It turns out that hugs also boost your immune system and, as well, when given with affection rather than from sexual predation, boost serotonin levels and alleviate mild depression. Human contact is important – without it infants wither and die, even when provided with other physical necessities. But these have to be genuine hugs, not the A-frame arms and shoulder pats that pass for them among the English.

Of course, a lot of the other nostrums spouted by elderly spouses are simply nonsense. Ginseng – unless laced with Viagra as is often the case – will not improve sexual functioning. Nor will rhino horn or anything else from nature that happens to resemble a penis. Otherwise bananas would be sold on the black market.

You can’t tell the sex of a baby from whether it is carried high or low – unless you have a portable ultrasound in your pocket. Nor can the weather be predicted by the behavior of squirrels (they long ago stopped being sensitive to nature as they adapted to an urban human environment). While red sky at night might be a decent suggestion of a fair day on the morning – even that is not a hundred percent in the face of an eastern wind.

My real point is that there is wisdom in folklore but a lot of it is trapped within nonsense and superstition. All the effective measures listed above – they were proven by science. Better to listen to a young white coat than a white haired spouse.

And that’s ten minutes.

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The Nature of Evidence

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I tell this joke (which has recently been borrowed by Robert J. Sawyer for his excellent new novel, Quantum Night).

What is the difference between a psychopath and a homeopath? Some psychopaths do no harm.

That pretty much sums up my view of much of what is called alternative medicine – or what I call ‘not-medicine-at-all.’ I’ve said all this before so I won’t go on but I raise it because of a story done on CBC’s The Current yesterday.

The trigger for the segment was the decision of Health Canada not to approve homeopathic medicines for children unless they had been proven effective through double-blind scientific testing. In effect, they banned these substances.

Of course, the homeopaths and their organizations are outraged. In a gentle friendly kind of way. They were represented by a nice doctor who is a real M.D. but who also uses homeopathy. I was not surprised to learn that he practices on Denman Island in BC. Anyone who has ever been there will understand what I’m saying. He talked about his ‘experience’ giving homeopathic ‘medicines’ to children with colds. It was as effective (or more so, he claimed) than other remedies and helped avoid their side-effects or the excessive use of antibiotics. And, I’ll grant, that’s not a bad thing.

But only because other remedies are not any more effective than letting the cold run its course. And antibiotics don’t have any impact on viruses (the source of a cold) and lead to drug-resistant bacteria.

All well and good. The doctor uses placebos to calm the nerves of kids and especially their parents.

The host then interviewed a researcher who used to be a homeopath but gave up when tasked with reviewing the research into the practices he himself followed. The host asked why he stopped believing in homeopathy. He responded: the research showed it didn’t work. Yes, the host said, but why did you stop believing in homeopathy? It was at that point I blew my top. Which is the whole point of this blog.

The vast majority of journalists have no clue what science is. They think it a belief system and that a theory is just a darn good guess. Trained to think that every side has an equally valid point of view, they fail to understand that science is not a point of view, it is an evidence based form of inquiry designed to test the validity (or falsity) of a thesis. That is, I think this vial of agitated and highly diluted liquid (diluted to the point that there is nothing there) will immunize you against diseases. Let’s test that proposition. Oh my, there is no evidence to support it. Oh my, it doesn’t work.

The researcher turned away from homeopathy because the evidence proved it didn’t work. Really quite a simple concept. Yet, media outlets continue to give climate change deniers (though some have dropped those guys), anti-vaxers and homeopaths a platform to promote not only incorrect ideas but dangerous ones. People will actually suffer and die because of these ideas.

Just maybe, if you don’t understand science, you shouldn’t report on it. Oh, and that joke I started with? The researcher in question had to give up his work and retire early because he kept getting death threats. From gentle friendly homeopaths.

And that’s ten minutes.

Science Fiction

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Unless you are a Republican congressman for whom the declaration that “I am not a scientist,” seems like a sad badge of honour, most people think they have a grasp on basic science. After all you can’t get through high school without at least one science credit. Back in the day, you even needed one to get your Bachelor of Arts – just as science guys like me needed at least one arts course. Still, I suspect most of my peers got no more grasp of science from their Biology 101 than I understood world history from my Plato to NATO survey course.

As they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The average North American gets by on very little information. Most, I suspect would flunk a grade ten general science quiz.

The people I tend to spend most of my time with – policy analysts and science fiction writers – tend to do a little better. Some of them even have degrees in one science discipline or another. But even we can make colossal blunders when we forget the basics tenets of the reasoning system that underpins most of modern civilization.

Perhaps no one can be blamed for losing track – there is after all more science out there every day, a lot of it reported in simplified memes or grotesque news headlines. And then we have the image of the scientist portrayed in fiction and the movies. Few get it right. Even The Martian, which was better than most films at portraying science, got it wrong in a way. When the hero says he is going to ‘science the shit’ out things, he’s really talking mostly about using technology.

There is a huge gap between those who use tools and those who actually make them and an even bigger gap to those who figure out the processes that make those tools work.

But we live in a sea of technology. I’m typing on a laptop while my smart phone counts down the ten minutes. I live in a building with thermostats and air circulation systems that would have seemed like magic two hundred years ago. Outside my windows, people are driving cars with more sophisticated computers than those that landed on the moon.

But science is not technology and, moreover, science is not done in isolation by single people working in labs or in front of whiteboards filled with math. Science is not about Eureka moments or brilliant men or women overturning the laws of nature in one fell swoop.

Science is a slow tedious process, mostly consisting of running the same experiment over and over again until you get consistent results, of reading and analyzing other people’s work rather than doing your own. It consists of endless calculations and often frustrating consideration of what results mean.

But that’s not very exciting and not very conducive to funny memes.

To many people, a theory is nothing more than a guess; to a scientist it is a rigorous set of proposals based on extensive evidence and used to make predictions about the world. Theories get strong if those predictions work out in reality and are weakened or even disproven if they don’t. It is a slow iterative process but the longer a theory has been around and more often it has been tested the stronger and more useful it becomes. The process is collaborative and tentative.

All too often we lose sight of that and leap on some reported result that hasn’t been repeated – that has in fact been refuted. I made that mistake earlier this week when I jumped the gun on the science of the Zika virus. And that’s how we misunderstand the world – whether it is climate change or vaccines: by selecting only those results that confirm our own prior beliefs. But that’s not science, that’s religion.

And this is a little more than ten minutes.

Fantasy

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So apparently Antonin Scalia didn’t die of natural causes; he was sacrificed in a pagan ritual by Barrack Obama. Wait, there’s more. Leonard Nimoy faked his own death and participated in the process.

I’m not sure what is more perplexing. That someone feels that people dying in their late seventies or early eighties is unnatural and needs some bizarre explanation or that somehow, someway, President Obama is not only to blame but an active participant. Nimoy (as Spock) is involved, I suppose, because the President is a well-known Star Trek fan.

Based on that thinking, we should expect Andre the Giant to come back from the dead to crush the head of Donald Trump in aid of Ted Cruz – who is, quite creepily, a big Princess Bride fan – to the point that he does imitations of the actors during political speeches.

I shudder to think what will happen if it becomes known that Bernie Sanders is a fan of Freddie Kruger. You didn’t know that? That, my friend, is because it is part of the cover-up. I mean, it could be true, right?

This is the world we increasingly live in. As you know, the Internet has changed a lot of things, many for the better, but its impact on such valuable things as evidence or sanity has been less than ideal.

We all know by now that thanks to Amazon (among others) that anybody can publish a book. Sadly, many take advantage of the opportunity. As one wag put it, in the 21sy Century everyone is publishing novels but no one is reading them.

But fiction that nobody reads is not a danger to society or social order. It is the ability of anybody to set up a ‘news’ site and then claim to be legitimate journalists that has really played havoc with modern discourse. When a large number of people are getting their ‘news’ from their Facebook accounts or Twitter feeds, we run a real risk of descending into a fantasy land where everything anyone opines becomes the truth.

Never mind the facts, free speech means that my opinions are as valid as anyone else; my propaganda is better than the news because it is, to quote one Conservative activist, more true. Well, it feels truer and that’s all that really matters, right?

And before you think this is another attack on the right, the left is increasingly engaged in the ‘truthiness’ debate. When the majority of health professionals tentatively linked microcephaly in Brazil to the Zika virus, a few doctors disagreed and said it was caused by a larvacide designed to shrink the larvae of mosquitoes. Makes sense right? Shrunken larvae equals shrunken heads. Never mind causal factors or anything resembling proof. We have the link and the enemy was Monsanto!

I don’t know what is causing this terrible rash of birth defects. It could be a virus, a chemical pollutant, a concentration of flawed genes – the evidence one way or another doesn’t exist. But who cares? If the fantastical narrative fits our fantasy life, just go with it. After all, reason and evidence – there’s so last century.

And that’s ten minutes.

Mystery

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Everyone loves a mystery, right? The search for the unknown is often more satisfying than the final discovery of the truth. And that’s a good thing. The quest to discover the unknown isn’t simply a feature of crime novels – or for that matter the criminal justice system. The hunt for the mysterious guides most of science (and is therefore a prominent feature in science fiction).

Like all things in life, the love of mystery almost always gets carried too far. I’m not talking about the obsessive reading of James Patterson (who with 16 books last year must be feeding somebody’s habit) but rather the fascination with the mysterious in human life.

One of the great pleasures of romance is the slow unveiling of the object of desire. The gradual removal of layers – whether of clothing or of secrets – is enticing and arousing. We seek that which is unknown in the other. Mere physical revelation is lovely but ultimately not what we are looking for. We seek the intimacy that only can come from the revelation of the ‘true person’ beneath the persona. Some people resist – preferring to maintain the mystery. They may have good reasons; they may have been betrayed before. Having revealed their deepest depths they may have then had their secrets spread far and wide.

Women are particularly familiar with this though I suspect men are equally or more vulnerable and thus even more reluctant to be open about their true feelings. Shrouded in mystery for so long they might well be particularly sensitive to the light of day.

Of course, entire religions (and every imaginable conspiracy theory) have been built around the idea of mystery. The great mystery is what happens after we die. For an atheist, the answer is simple: we quickly succumb to bacterial decay and insect predation. Leave a body in the sun for three days and you would be lucky to be able to recognize your closest friend (making them a perfect case for the TV mystery show, Bones),

But it is the immortal soul that concerns most people. Again not an issue for me. But still, look at the vast edifices that have been built all around the world in honour of the quest.

And of course, ask any priest – no matter what the religion – why some inexplicable thing could have happened under God’s watch, whether a child with cancer or a massive earthquake killing tens of thousands and they will invariably say: It’s a mystery.

For myself, I’ll stick to the mysteries found between the covers of a book. I find nothing more relaxing than contemplating the evil of man and the vagaries of justice while watching Archie and Nero, or Travis Mcgee, Temperance Brennan, Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple ply their trade.

It’s almost as pleasant as reading about the discovery of gravity waves or the potential cure for cancer in a simple virus – the mysteries of science revealed in the only world that matters, the real one.

And that’s ten minutes.

Insomnia

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Of all the things I’ve lost over the years, the one I miss most is the ability to sleep through the night. For most of my life, I fell asleep within seconds or at most minutes of my head hitting the pillow and remained asleep for eight solid hours or more, unless I was yanked untimely from my dreams by the bleating of an alarm clock. Blessed with a huge bladder (TMI, I know), I seldom even had to get up in the night to pee.

Oh, to return to those days. While my bladder remains huge, I seldom sleep solidly through the night. I wake up because I’ve gotten sore from lying in one position, because I need a drink of water, because my snoring wakes me or my wife up, because of no reason at all. On a very good night, I’ll awake once or twice. On a bad one, my eyes flop open every 45 minutes. Sometimes I can go back to sleep fairly quickly; others I lie awake for an hour or more, thinking circular thoughts about something that is troubling me.

On occasion, I’ve composed one of these little essays at 4 in the morning and then repeated it over and over in my head so that when I finally stagger up it is no effort at all to transcribe it. Then there are the times when I’ve thought of something brilliant to say only to have it slip away in the time between 4 and the dawn.

I’ve developed a few tricks to get me through. Breathing helps, especially if a press my face into the crook of my arm so the sound is loud in my ears. I’m sure the gradual buildup of carbon dioxide under the sheets helps bring a return of unconsciousness as well. My wife uses visualizations but these have never worked for me – they get more and more complex and pretty soon develop exciting plots which either promotes wakefulness or guarantees nightmares that, you guessed it, wake me up.

Whenever my mind is whirling with some task that needs doing, usually related to my day job or to the publishing work, I have developed a simple process. I ask myself if I’m going to get up and do what needs to be done. I stick my nose above the covers and notice how cold it is and I snuggle against my pillow and notice how cozy it is and decide that perhaps I don’t need to do that task right now after all. But about one time in ten, I actually get up, put on a warm robe and head for my computer to work for a few minutes or an hour or as long as it takes.

I then spend the rest of the day longing for bed while resisting the urge to nap – which would only guarantee another restless night.

Recently, I read a study that suggested that the idea of sleeping through the night is a relatively new one, brought on by the schedules of the industrial age and the demands of the ever ticking clock. Three hundred years ago, people went to bed when it got dark, but often got up in the night to do some early morning chore by the light of the moon or write letters or read by candle light. Sleep came when it was required. And maybe that’s something I can look forward to when I am freed of other people’s schedules and can finally just… zzzz.

And that’s ten minutes.

Climate Tinkering

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Technology has been and will be a critical part of any climate change solution. If we are to stop emitting large amounts of carbon into the air, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and start using alternative sources of energy. We could simply stop consuming as much, I suppose, and live a simpler life. That’s fine for me, I already have been lifted into relative prosperity but I for one am not prepared to condemn a billion people to remain in poverty. Energy is related to economic prosperity. Energy efficiency and conservation are good practices but in a still growing world, they don’t address development issues.

Besides, people seldom pay enough attention to exhortations to ‘be good and sacrifice your interests’ to make a real difference. Not to mention the rebound effect.

A lot of progress has been made. Thanks to the US government’s support of alternative energy programs, the commercial price of solar power is now competitive with any other alternative, including coal and oil. Natural gas still has an advantage and for a while that’s okay. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels but even it has to go within the next decade if we are to achieve our climate goals. Environmentalists may need to choose between fracking and bitumen in the short term.

We have also made progress with biofuels and wind power but they have their own problems. Ethanol from corn takes almost as much energy to produce as it provides for vehicles – and all that energy comes from fossil fuels. And it creates other environmental problems. Ethanol or methane from other sources are better. Bio-fuels, of course, release carbon, as well, but that carbon was recently taken out of the atmosphere by growing the product: a presumably virtuous cycle. Still, even these sources have their issues – requiring some oil and gas energy and lots of water. But hope is on the horizon from third generation ethanol production from cellulose or from fast growing pond scum (I should warn you – such scum has been genetically modified).

What about nuclear power? We should keep what we have but the likelihood of being able to build more plants is low, given the successful (if often misguided) campaign against it. Besides, new plants – if we started today – wouldn’t be commissioned for 12-15 years. As for fusion, it is ten years away and always will be.

But what if all our efforts aren’t enough? What if we keep putting carbon in the air at a slower rate but faster than we can take it out through natural carbon sinks? Then we still have a problem. And given the likelihood that we may in fact fail to do what we should and could do in the next forty years – what are the alternatives?

Some have suggested geo-engineering. Two proposals have gotten a lot of attention because they are cheap and easy to do. The first is to dump iron filings in the ocean to promote algae blooms – it certainly appears to work (on the surface) and has even been tried – illegally. The problem is that no one can say whether it really removes that much carbon from the air or, for sure, what the long-term or even short-term impact on ocean health will be. Sick oceans are not in the world’s best interests. Which is why it is now illegal to try this particular hare-brained experiment.

Another option would be to dump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. In the lower atmosphere, this chemical produces rather nasty and deadly smog but in the upper atmosphere they produce aerosols that reflect sunlight back into space. We would wind up with a slightly darker but cooler world. It is in effect a manmade volcano. In two years, the sulfur comes back to earth (acid rain anyone?) so at best it is a temporary solution or one that needs constant renewal. But it can be done with current technology.

More hopeful technologies exist in labs all over the world. Those GMO ethanol-producing algae are a fair option in a controlled environment (and could make for interesting pool parties). Better yet are artificial trees that remove carbon directly and produce solid carbon compounds that can then be buried or otherwise disposed of. Both of these have the advantage of not requiring us to perform ill-considered experiments on the only planet we know we can live on. Science may yet save the day.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.