Saturday, 29 August 2015

Moral dilemmas, assisted suicide and a fairly weighty debate

Humans face moral dilemmas throughout their life or, at least, from the time they are old enough to differentiate between right and wrong in some measure. It does not mean that humans do no wrong but, at best, it means that they get to choose between acting in the common good and acting against the common good and that is, at least, something to be mildly grateful for. (I should add at this stage that penguins have no real morality, at least as far as you understand it, because we are so bound up with instinct that is incredibly difficult to go against an evolution-mediated behaviour. We see no logical reason to go against the inclination to always take our turn on the outside of the rookery, where there is no protection whatsoever, when the wind howls like a banshee and the snow forms a carpet on our feathers , although it would be, in a somewhat very selfish, self-interested way, possibly sensible to do so. However this seldom persuades me not to pass comment on your moral dilemmas, great and small; it is sometimes good to have another species' view, I think.)

The Brits are about to debate, in their legislature,  the question of the legality of 'assisted suicide'. The last time that they held a debate on this issue was in 1997 or 1999, I cannot remember which,  and they came down firmly into the 'it is a crime' camp.

Now assisted suicide is exactly what it says on the tin; helping another person to commit suicide, which, in itself, is no longer a crime. How do you punish the successful suicide bid? And to punish the unsuccessful seems to me to churlish in the extreme. A person goes to all that trouble and fails; they surely don't deserve punishment for being inept. However, a number of Brits (about 18) have been travelling to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, to take advantage of the services of Dignitas, an organisation set up with the express purpose of assisting people to kill themselves. (I will deal with the morality of charging people for this service later in the blog.) This, it appears, has prompted the re-opening of the debate about whether or not it should be legal in Britland.

I do not have a problem with suicide per se as long as it does not impact on other people (or penguins), bus, tube and train jumpers please take note, although it is difficult to see how any suicide doesn't impact on friends or family but, at root, it must surely be the 'potential suicide' who must make the choice about whether or not to end his or her life deliberately; it is merely one of the results of your consciousness and your ability to make choices.

However, much of the west's morality is grounded in Judeo-Christian myth and its roots lie very deep indeed. The Christian Church has always described suicide as a mortal sin, it is after all murder of oneself - 'thou shall not kill' - although whether they still deny the right of burial in consecrated ground I cannot say; they certainly used to, going so far as to bury the suicide at a crossroads well outside the town or village. (Shades of Robert Johnson and a pact with the devil who frequents such places, I think). But in a more secular age, this feeling amongst the largely irreligious, has waned to be replaced by a more existential approach, which no longer listens to the pronouncements of Popes and Archbishops.

So where do humans, or rather Britland humans, go from here? If one accepts that the pronouncement of the church, of whatever denomination, have no place in the argument then, it seems to me, to boil down to the rights of the individual. (A slight digression;: humans have no basic, intrinsic rights; only 'socially-agreed rights'. To argue otherwise merely puts humans into a position of a 'God-given' morality and humans, at least in Europe, have fought for centuries to be free of that particular yoke.) I would not presume to offer a rational, or irrational, argument over whether or not someone has a right to end their own life; the decision must be theirs and theirs alone but when you start to involve another human being in your plot to end your life, the waters becomes very murky indeed.

As a 'true friend' or spouse or partner, should not the wishes of your 'loved one' take precedence? (Assuming you have a heart.) Shouldn't you assist them in whatever it is that they want to do? Don't you owe them your compassion for what they deem to be an intolerable situation? Should the law punish you for helping a friend or a partner to attain their life's desire which impacts on (mainly) no-one but themselves? Clearly, most people's (or at least most people's, closest to the would-be suicide) argument would be that it is not wrong and no-one should be punished. On the face of it, I agree.

However, it is seldom as clear-cut or straightforward as that. If, and it is a very big if, only two people are involved and the 'significant other' merely acquires the means to permit the would-be suicide to kill themselves then I see no reason to prosecute. But how does one know that the suicide has not been coerced or, more significantly, murdered, which is a crime? It is very easy to shift along a shedload of paracetamol down a victim's gullet if they are drugged out of their eyeballs with diamorphine or to overdose on that same diamorphine. Enact safeguards, I hear you say. Involve the medical profession or some other respected body. I regret to say that you have just extended the net somewhat wider that my original agreement to the practice took account of.

Medical Practitioners do not, as far as I know, take a Hippocratic Oath but for a hundred or more years, the abiding consensus of the profession has been to 'knowingly do no harm'. Obviously, it is a good adage. Where treatment is possible, treat with the most widely accepted treatment which does no harm even if it means that you will only prolong life for a few days, weeks or months. Otherwise let nature take its course. However, by engaging the medical profession in the personal decision of the would-be suicide, you are in direct opposition to that 'do no harm' tenet and so become embroiled in yet another dilemma; how do you know that the doctor has not been subverted to the 'significant' other's possible intent to murder? You cannot be sure just as you cannot be sure of the 'significant' other.

The basis of Britland law has always been 'beyond a reasonable doubt'.  It is difficult to see how a jury would differentiate between 'assisted suicide' or murder if the motive remains hidden or successfully-falsely professed.

Whilst I have the utmost sympathy for those suffering from terminal, debilitating disease who wish to end their lives, I fear that legislating to make 'assisted suicide' legal opens up a veritable host of cans of worms; and where does it stop? Twenty years down the line, does assisted suicide become the norm, whether the patient desires it or not? (Remember that the King's physician administered what amounted to a 'speedball', morphine and cocaine, to a dying, comatose King George V of Britland just so that it could make the morning, as opposed to the evening, papers. It's in his diaries, people!)

So do I hope that the Brits vote against? On balance, I do. There are many ways of killing yourself, all by yourself, if you truly want to; I don't see why anyone else should get involved.

Finally, as promised, to elucidate on Dignatas. They charge €4,000, or thereabouts, for the privilege of assisting you to die legally. However, the Swiss only deem it legal if nobody gains from the death.  However, Dignatas refuse to openly publish their accounts, although whether they disclose them to the authorities in Switzerland I have no way of knowing, and this must raise doubts; what have they got to hide? Dignatas was set up by a lawyer, and we all know how altruistic and frugal they are, so vastly inflated salaries to effectively 'hide' profit cannot possibly be the order of the day; can it?

Friday, 21 August 2015

Traffic Wardens, a Sense of Perspective and the true value of a sense of humour

I hadn't intended to make any further comments about the state of the Internet after my last post but I feel I must in the wake of a small (non-) news report yesterday and the subsequent comments about it.

The report was concerning the parking ticket received by a UK 'chauffeur' driving a six-door, black (and immaculate) limousine, which was illegally parked in a residential parking space (the Brits are paranoid about their parking spaces) for about eight minutes. (HERE)

Now, the thrust of the story was about how unfair such a ticket was (with its attendant £50-60 fine), given that the 'limousine' (as far as I can make out, a private hire car) was intended to ferry mourners to a funeral; the car was parked a little way down from the funeral director's in a private space but as far as I could determine from the article, it wasn't one of the best pieces of journalism that I have ever come across, it was not owned by the funeral director.

Parking Wardens in Britland get a somewhat raw deal from the average motorist. They are seen as the archetypal 'Jobsworths'; it's more than my job's worth not to issue a ticket. However, it is badly paid, target-driven by the local council and invariably subject to the most Draconian of practices (again enforced by the local council too keen to maintain a maximisation of the revenue stream); it doesn't help that many wardens in major cities are Eastern European or African migrants, eager to obtain gainful employment. Already pissed-off motorists are only too willing, almost avid, to extend their ire over wardens to demonstrations of rampant xenophobia; it is, I must confess, a recipe for ill-informed comment of the highest order. Sad, it is true, but that is state of most of the western democracies. How the ancient Greeks and the Enlightenment philosophers must be turning, spinning uncontrollably, in their graves.

The average Parking Warden is given a very small amount of 'delegated authority' but this is sorely limited but, no doubt, many still exercise a little restraint on compassionate grounds. However, in the case in question, there was little indication, from the journalism, that the vehicle, parked illegally, was involved in a funeral; the 'chauffeur' was not present at all between the time car parked and the issue of the ticket. Therefore the warden could not have been cognisant of that fact that the car was intended for mourners. The warden, however, allowed a 'grace period' of around eight minutes before issuing the ticket; perhaps less, maybe more.

What is the warden to do? If he or she allows someone to park illegally without issuing a ticket, he or she is not doing his or her job, for which, don't forget, he or she is being paid by the local tax-payer; however abysmally. Should the warden run around, knocking on every door, to perhaps elicit extenuating circumstances from somebody or other? Should the warden assume that someone would park in a residential space for no good reason? An emergency? On balance, it is not the most likely scenario; how many able-bodied park in places reserved, quite explicitly, for the disabled? Would that any of us should have the time to go and spend half-an-hour in a, possibly, fruitless search?

So what did the so-called intelligent Brits do? (In some cases without reading, or even basally understanding, the text of the article.) They called for the warden's dismissal. They called on the council to not only dismiss him or her but to waive, without due process, the fine! And there thus ensued a less than polite dialogue (running to 216 comments over a 20 hour or so period) about the pros and cons of the argument but containing little of substance. Most 'cons' were of the belief that the bereaved were entitled to anything; whether it broke the law or not.  Most 'pros' were of the belief that it was the responsibility of the Funeral Director to acquire adequate parking space, which would comply with local bye-laws. ( And which he would no doubt add to his bill.) There was no common ground between the two. And yet, each was culpably guilty of, what the late Bernard Levin called, single-issue fanaticism; the total inability of one side to accept that another contrary view might have some, however minor, merit.

Me? I am amazed that it was possible to get 'worked up' over such an issue when people are subject to the most awful deprivation and conflict. North Africa is seemingly in tumult due to a widespread endemic war between fundamentalists and moderates and migrants are flooding into Europe at an alarming rate (although some may be economic); Afghanistan (or Iraq) is still not resolved; Russia appears to 'be at war' with almost all of its neighbours; China is almost in social meltdown; famine in Africa does not even seem to make more that a half-inch or two in the papers; Donald Trump appears to be leading the Republican nominations race (God forbid!). And the Brits argue over a parking ticket!

Of course (I can hear the protestations from here), the Brit media encourage this kind of mindless, senseless, no-thought activity by feeding a constant stream of worthless garbage to the masses via 'the Sun', the 'Star', the 'Daily Mail', '' etc etc etc. This used to be the land of conquest, of innovation, of success; at one time Britland 'ruled' half of the globe, whether politically or economically. Whatever happened to the population? Perhaps it has always been so; mired in ignorance!

As a antidote to this despair that I feel about humans in general, and mourning humans in particular, MG tells a faintly amusing story about the funeral of his father. It was a modest affair; there were few left alive to mourn him. The hearse, carrying the coffin, turns up with a large 'limousine' to carry his mother and the grandchildren; everybody else had their own car. They open the gate to the communal driveway, all set to move off at a snail's pace, as is customary; the chief mourner leading the cars at a slow, walking pace to allow those on the street time to gather to pay their last respects. Five yards; the hearse breaks down! It took twenty minutes and a phone call to a mechanic to fix the problem; they were of course late for the service! MG pissed himself! His 'gaffer' was undoubtedly having a laugh!

Did he sue for the delay? Of course not! Did he try to extract some 'discount' for the interruption? Of course not. Shit happens, even in the most traumatic events in our lives. Humour is a veritable gift from the gods; use it!

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The legacy of the Internet! How the strong get stronger and the weak.......

I have to be honest and confess, although I have covered the topic in the past, that I grow increasingly fagged off with the arrant foolishness, lack of thought and downright nastiness of a good deal of human interaction with this whole Interweb thingamajig.

I, as a sub-optimal, profoundly ignorant penguin, understand that the web is ephemeral, of little lasting value and transitory. I understand that it appears to have little value attached to it, Twitter is a prime example, but why must it always, repeat always, descend to depths lower than even the lowest common denominator? Is this just a symptom of the dumbing down of discourse, journalism and literature? Is 'Fifty Shades of Grey' or Dan Brown to become the highest pinnacle of achievement of humankind? Is the web to blame or is it, rather, some deep manifestation of a more general ignorance and unreason to which humankind now aspires to? Is the world now too complex for you to think in anything other than 'black' and 'white'; fifty shades of grey notwithstanding. (What a publishing non-event that SHOULD have been - von Sacher-Masoch was much better written, although not without its literary faults, and far more erotic! A juvenile pastiche, and I do mean juvenile, should not have made the author rich!).

You, as a species, are the heirs to Plato, Eratosphones, Aristotle, Socrates, Hesiod, Herodotus, Descartes, Leibnitz, Bentham, Hobbes, Russell, Popper, Planck, Einstein, Feynman, Mandelbrot, Magritte, Picasso, Stuart Mill, Maynard Keynes, Marx and Mao Ze-Dong. You are the inheritors of Virgil, Homer, Pope, Roget, Johnson, Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald, Goethe, Hamsun, Sartre, (A) Huxley and Orwell. You carry the burden of Darwin, Lyell, Chomsky, (T H) Huxley, Gould and a shedload of other characters, far too many to mention, besides. And yet, how many of these have been read by the post-baby-boomer generations, unless forced to by adolescent education and then only to be forgotten as fast as you learned it once the all-too-easy examinations had passed!

Oh, it has no relevance, I hear you cry! This is a modern world; the age of smartphones, Twitter and the Internet! This is the age of technology, the age of limitless innovation, the age of the new and the exciting; long-discarded pronouncements have no place in the modern world. And you may be right. But, in your zeal to encompass all that is new, is novel, you have forgotten a fundamental truth. We, you and I, stand on the shoulders of giants. Humankind possesses what it has, hegemony over the entire planet, only because of what it has built, on what has gone before; it has always been thus.

Ever since Cro-Magnon 'man', with the rudiments of language, slunk out of Africa 40,000 years ago, you have built on the experiences of your predecessors; with the coming of a codified, written script some 4-6,000 years ago, you have been able to impart knowledge without a direct dialogue between 'father and son', 'mother and daughter' etc; and that knowledge is, in part, lasting. It carries through the centuries without loss; or largely without loss. (The [Mycenaean] Linear Script A remains to be deciphered to the best of my knowledge.) And yet, you humans want, as far as I can determine, to forget the wisdom accumulated in the past and wish to, almost, start afresh; as though the preceding 6,000 years had not happened. How else to interpret the past 20 or 30 years?

Predudice, bigotry and self-opinionated beliefs will never be eradicated from the human condition; it is what makes YOU what you are! You may plaster over the cracks in your psyche but you, at root, cannot forget what you are. You are a tribal, self-centred, egotistical species. Just like me; or the whales, the lions, the gnus or the hyraxes. But you possess thought, self-awareness, conscience, faith. Why can't you apply this, as a species, to the world around you?

I have little problem with the concept of 'free speech'. Everyone, whether penguin, human or orca is entitled to their opinion; however perverse. But it seems, from what I read, that, although this may be paid lip service to, in essence, one's opinion is at best ignored or, is at worst, subject to the worst kind of insult and abuse. And this I don't understand.

Still, I read the most awful comments. 'My opinion is worth more than yours'. 'I am right (completely) and you are wrong (completely)'.  'I do not have a cogent argument to convince you, so I will resort to insult and abuse'. 'I do have a cogent argument but you will not listen, so I insult you, your intelligence, your capacity to think'. Why do you this?

Me, I think anonymity. Humans can 'get away' with posting 'acid' because there are no repercussions; no slap, or worse, round the face for your impertinence. You are protected. And this is the main danger of so-called 'social media' which is media but is scarce 'social'. Social implies interaction; there is no interaction in 'social media', which cannot be ignored completely (because you must). And therein lies the rub. (Read Shakespeare, for goodness sake! 'Hamlet', if you need a clue!)

Johnson once said that 'patriotism was the last resort of the scoundrel'; it is difficult to see that, in modern terms, the 'last resort' is unrestrained, unsubstantiated, uninformed vitriol and that is equably unjustifiable.


Saturday, 15 August 2015

Octopi, Octopuses, Octopodes and AC/DC

(MG hijacks the blog at this point.)

I don't care what you say; AC/DC are the best rock and roll band in the WORLD; BAR NONE! The Rolling Stones are mere amateurs! Yes,  Malcolm is prey to Alzheimer's, the drummer is suspected of murder and Brian and Angus must be 'feeling the the weight of the years' but just listen to 'Shot down in flames' (or anything else for that matter) from the 2013 'Live at the River Plate' to appreciate how awesome they could they be, and were, and still, relatively speaking, are!  I rate AC/DC above Led Zep as a live band and that says something!

Malcolm Young better than Jimmy Page at generating 'riffs'; Yep! Angus Young better as a soloist than Page? No! Angus sucks as a soloist; I can do better. But as a band they were simply the best! And they still, by and large, seem to sound the same, with all that energy, as when Bon Scott carried Angus, playing all the while through the medium of recently introduced wi-fi, on his shoulders up and down the Hammersmith Odeon. I defy you to listen to AC/DC live and not shake your head backwards and forwards like a demented, head-banging idiot. You can't help it!

I'm not even sure now whether the death of Bon Scott was not a 'step up' for the band; I remember Brian when he used to be in 'Geordie'. He must surely thank his lucky stars that AC/DC found him; the nicest retirement fund ever and all in return for a gravel-voice and piss-poor lyrics! (Most of the staples of the second half of a show, the stuff the fans actually want/crave, are usually Bon Scott penned lyrics.) And I am so glad that 'technology' allowed the creation of the 'balloon' that is 'Rosie' - as in 'Whole lotta Rosie'; whoever dreamed that up deserves a medal or, at least, an OBE!

(MG now relinquishes control of this blog and retreats to the sanctuary of vintage 'Mock the Week' and Frankie Boyle.)

Thank you, MG, for giving me my blog back!

A couple of recent articles have piqued my interest over the last few days but I don't know if I should discuss them; my knowledge is, I think, too poor but, nonetheless they are sea-borne creatures such as I, and so, perhaps I should comment.

The articles refer to octopuses (or octopodes if you want to be pedantic as the 'pus' part is derived from the Greek for 'foot' not Latin as most seem to think). One was a short piece about the hunting habits of a small octopus, 'tapping' shrimps on the shoulder, which seems to momentarily startle them, before engulfing them with their 'arms' about them, and the other, perhaps far more interesting, although 'hyped' beyond belief by the journos, was about how different an octopus' DNA seems to be, when compared to other creatures (or at least those creatures which have had their DNA sequenced).

Now, as far as I can determine, octopuses belong to the invertebrate class Cephalopoda which in addition to the 300 or so species of octopus includes the nautiloids, the cuttle fishes and squids (my favourites, they are so tasty). They seem to be, to my eyes at least, perhaps the most evolved of their class. Nautiloids have retained the compartmentalised shell of their mollusc ancestors; cuttle fish retain the large, internalised shell, the 'cuttle-bone', long favoured amongst keepers of captive budgerigars for keeping the bill from overgrowing; squid retain a thin internal 'shell', almost transparent, but most species of octopus are entirely without a vestige of a shell, whether internal or external, which enable them to perform their 'disappearing act' when startled; flowing into holes or gaps, however small, as though by magic. Indeed, some octopus species carry shells of other molluscs, coconuts or even bottles around with them to hide in and thus escape the attentions of potential predators; they are mostly of modest size and, like fleas, always have larger potential predators*.

Their ability to change their skin colour and even the texture of the skin on a highly selective basis to match their immediate surroundings, whether it be a uniform or variegated colour or texture, is truly remarkable; the transformation is almost instantaneous and, I suspect, cannot be mediated or entirely under the control of a 'central' brain and must be, to some extent, under the control of its highly decentralised neuronal system, although I have no evidence whatsoever to support this assertion. It just seems to me to be more logical, although nature doesn't have to follow the rules of quasi-human logic; if it did I wouldn't be freezing my arse off for four months of the year; every year! This ability may have evolved both for protection or ambush; it does not really matter. Once acquired, it is able to perform both functions irrespective of its origin, although given the other methods that the octopus has to evade predators, squirting 'black ink', 'flying' off at high speed by 'jet propulsion' and trailing its legs behind, thus making the 'brain' the furthest from a predator, makes me think that its 'camouflage', developed for defence, initially.

They appear to be the most intelligent of all the invertebrates, being able to resolve a number of 'human designed' problems, although exactly how intelligent they are is widely contested among researchers. However, many countries have placed them on a list of animals that are 'sentient', at least in so far as legislation regarding animal experimentation is concerned, which implies, at least, that the octopus has a fair degree of the 'benefit of the doubt' regarding its supposed intelligence, which no doubt pleases the octopodes in the main.

However, the most startling fact, from an analysis of one particular species of octopus, the California Two-Spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides), the only cephalopod thus far to have had its genome sequenced, shows a striking dissimilarity with the genomes of other species which have been sequenced, leading journos to dub the octopus 'alien'; as one researcher has said, it was like putting the genome into a blender and re-arranging everything that is found to be somewhat common amongst diverse species and classes. However, until other species of octopus and their cephalopod cousins are sequenced, currently underway, it will be impossible to determine whether this is a novel re-arrangement possibly unique to the last common ancestor of the octopus or whether its roots lie further back along the cephalopod tree of descent.

I, personally, am sceptical of the assertions of 'alien-ness'. It is impossible to extract, from the fossil record, the DNA of extinct species (it is largely unstable outside the living organism) and so this gross shuffling of the genetic code may be a not infrequent event promoted, for instance, by increased bombardment of high-energy photons or by increased solar radiation due to, for example, fluctuating levels in the ozone layer which provide a protection against ionising radiation from high-energy gamma rays and UV light. Perhaps the major divisions which scientists see in the various 'kingdoms', bacteria, fungi, plants, invertebrates, vertebrates all came about through the gross presence in past geological time of such mutagens.

The origin of multi-cellular life is still shrouded in a good deal of mystery, although the basic mechanics of how such life might have originated give good grounds for a speculative theory; symbiotic parasites invading single cells, dragging their DNA with them. Any organism which could co-opt these 'parasites' to serve 'its own purpose' would probably gain an advantage over those which could not.

Without a time machine to allow the examination of long extinct species, there will never be any certainty of how life originated and how it developed through its many phases; even lifeforms which seem to mirror their long-extinct ancestors, still must change, if only through genetic drift. More importantly, we do not yet understand the purpose, if any, of all of the 'junk-DNA' which seems not to have any function; perhaps, nature, by accumulating DNA which serves no purpose in the living organism, allows for a greater ability to evolve by mutating the very DNA which serves no current purpose. It can, may, fundamentally alter ontogeny (and thus phylogeny) without disturbing the fundamental ontogeny of the basal organism. Nature seems like an obsessive hoarder; throwing nothing away on the grounds that it one day, with a subtle mutation, could come in handy.

As the human-influenced planet grinds inextricably towards catastrophe, perhaps in the life span of humans born this year, it is comforting to note that, as Ian Michael (Jeff Goldblum) points out in Jurassic Park, life will always find a (an intelligent) way!

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet in his kind
Is bit by him that comes behind.
(Jonathan Swift, Poetry, A Rhapsody.)
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on. 
(Augustus de Morgan).

I seriously can't be arsed to see which came first; life is too short, especially in my case!

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

What is it to be profoundly deaf? (Apologies once more to Thomas Nagel.)

Sentient beings are 'knowledge-sponges'; they soak up knowledge without ever thinking about it. Some knowledge is acquired through experience; this hammer hurts if I bring it down on my thumb instead of the clout. Some knowledge is acquired through education; this, juvenile orca, is the way to get that seal off of the ice-floe, let daddy demonstrate wave-hunting. Some knowledge is acquired by the medium of language, whether written or spoken; here is a lecture and a textbook which tells you how to split the atom or make an atomic bomb. (Al-Qaeda thankfully missed that lecture.)

As some kind of respite from all of the 'natural history' or palaeontological books that I have been reading recently, I was presented with a choice; Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, which like Melville's 'Moby Dick' I have struggled with (see blogs 2008 passim) both in French and English, and Oliver Sacks' 'Seeing Voices'* about the congenitally or the prelinguinally deaf. As Fricka was somewhat hesitant about taking more than her fair share of the feeding duties for little Fjörgen while I continued my struggle with Rabelais, I chose the latter.

I have only managed around twenty-five pages so far but, almost immediately, I was struck by a thought which I have had reason to expound upon on occasion; what is it to be a bat? Or a bird? I have, I feel, a little insider knowledge of what it must be like to be congenitally or prelinguinally deaf. My own language is unlike that of most humans, being somewhat based on gesture and posture and subtle inflections of tone and pitch; how else do you think that we are able to unfailingly find our own chick amidst so many in the teeming rookery? I have had to learn to write and to read English in a way that it is, perhaps, similar to that manner in which a deaf person might because I can't make sense of any of the sounds which make up human spoken language, whichever one you happen to speak.

Language is fundamental to the acquisition of the broad range of knowledge which humans now possess; it is only language which allows humankind a doorway, an entrance, to the vast stores of information to which you have access and allows people to get beyond the limits of pure existence and exceed the limitations of your ape-like ancestors and contemporaries. An orca may teach its offspring how to wave hunt and a chimpanzee may teach its fellows the 'smart' trick of wheedling ants or grubs from a rotten tree stump with the aid of a thin stick but they have no way of ensuring, with any degree of certainty, that these 'smart' tricks are handed down from generation to generation in the absence of language.

Sometime during their second or third year, human children begin to process the sounds that make up human speech (the phonemes) into fully articulated words and concepts complete with grammar and syntax, although quite how they do it is still shrouded in a good deal of mystery. Perhaps, as Chomsky reasoned, human brains are simply predisposed to acquiring language; it, at a very basic level, is pre-programmed or hard-wired into the developing brain. And there is, perhaps, no better illustration of this than what happens in the developing child who is congenitally or prelinguinally deaf. Providing that they have other profoundly deaf people to interact with, they develop a language all their very own; sign language.

Forget ASL (American Sign Language or its many variants), which is largely a learned system of communication, which has clearly defined parameters, look instead at what deaf people do in the absence of such a system; they devise a means to express themselves with 'sign' which is often unique to that community. Although the profoundly deaf have been treated abysmally in the past, a pioneering, French, and a very enlightened one for an eighteenth century 'philosophe', cleric, one Abbé Sicard, realised that the deaf were not stupid but capable of just as much intelligence as any other human being and so started a short-lived experiment in which the deaf were brought together in schools in which they could be educated using sign language. The results were good enough to translate 'across the pond' and led to the establishment of the first university to specifically cater for the particular needs of the profoundly deaf.

And then disaster struck in the mid-nineteenth century; at least for the deaf. The concept was abandoned and the next century was spent in forcing children into spoken language, something which they clearly couldn't do, at least not well. One memoir speaks of the disillusionment felt by the deaf, who could not cope with acquiring knowledge through normal means, but still managed to communicate with each other, although it was banned and subject to punishment, by devising their own sign language in the absence of a more formal system.

It is, perhaps, too late in the day to introduce sign language as a general, second language, much as French or Spanish is taught in schools now, to allow even greater interaction with the general population who can hear. Pretty much a whole community, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, were once conversant with sign, so many of its inhabitants were congenitally deaf, and it was a natural mode of expression even though not everyone was deaf; perhaps it is time to think again.

Human societies are now encouraged to be thoughtful and caring to the physically and mentally challenged, the poor and the destitute, the elderly and the infirm; shouldn't you go just a little way to accommodating the one in a thousand who are profoundly deaf and have been that way since they were born? As with the black man or woman in the post-slavery US, the Africans and Asians exploited through centuries of colonialism, economic and political, one half of your species, women; don't you now owe them just a little by means of education of the hearing-unimpaired to make up for just a little of what they have had to suffer in the past?

As MG once pointed through the medium of MY blog, the loss of the ability to communicate, in the aftermath of his stroke, is a trial which isolates you from your fellows; how much more of a trial would that have been in the past to the profoundly and congenitally deaf?

* If ever there was an apt title for a book, then this is it. I have not gone far enough into the book to learn whether deaf people 'learn' to think in language other than sign, although I doubt it. Hearing individuals often claim, probably quite rightly, that thought is a process of verbal dialogue with themselves. Just imagine yourself conducting a dialogue with yourself about whether you should do something, or feel something, or philosophising, entirely in semaphore! Tricky, no? Easy-peasy for the congenitally or the prelinguinally deaf! Such is the ubiquity and value of language, however it is couched, among the entirety of the human species. Tool-making and upright posture was not the route to hegemony; language was!

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Genesis 1:26, the ubiquity of humankind and the resilience of bacteria

I want to take as the subject of today's sermon (LOL) Genesis 1:26 - 'And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.' (King James Bible) - but before doing so, I'd like to update you on the latest offspring; Fjörgen*. She is doing well, putting on weight and developing nicely as I am sure you will be pleased to know.  We had a 'hairy' moment last week when she wandered a little too far off my feet and a Great Southern Petrel (oh how I hate the bonxies) took an unhealthy, in Fjörgen's case, interest but a few stabs with my bill in his or her head did the trick and he/she has not bothered us since.

But to return to our sheep (revenons à nos moutons), humankind has presumed the Genesis-like 'lordship', whether sanctioned by God or not, ever since the migration out of Africa as Homo sapiens some 40,000 odd years ago. Homo erectus, who migrated 'out of Africa' as much as 100,000 years earlier, was not so much of a danger to native fauna, being smaller in brain size and less capable of making sophisticated weapons, but Homo sapiens sapiens appears to have used their enhanced brains, enhanced tool-making skills and their sophisticated consciousness to assume a quasi-lordship over the fauna and flora of the planet, killing everything in sight because they could; a bit like America today. 

Humans appear to have gone through a catastrophic population crash sometime in the past, but less than 40,000 years ago, when their numbers dropped to as little as, perhaps, 1-2,000 individuals, if the genetic variational evidence can be believed, but once the population began to recover, humankind can be implicated in, if not made largely or exclusively responsible for, the extermination of whole tracts of native megafauna down through the ages up to the present time. 

As far back as 11-12,000 years ago, when 'modern' humans, the 'Clovis people' crossed the Bering strait into Alaska, and subsequently North America due to a lowering of the seas in the wake of the last ice-age, humans have been implicated in the extermination of whole species. When mammoths and mastodons, wooly rhinos, giant ground sloths, horses, camels, giant bears etc, supremely adapted for a cold climate, began to be put under pressure due to the subsequent warming of the planet, the raising of sea levels  and the subsequent isolation of continents and smaller land masses, humans almost undoubtedly put the final nails in their coffins by hunting them to eventual extinction. Even South America was not safe, even if the Panama land bridge was not still extant; humans seem to have a predilection for 'going to sea'.

In general, large continental land masses, with diverse fauna could continue to maintain their diversity in the wake of the coming of 'primitive man' as the islands which make up a major feature of the earth's landscape became isolated. However, once humans decided, were forced, to venture out to sea in, what must must be assumed to be primitive, rafts, these islands were no longer safe for any large, kill-able source of food.

The proto-Polynesians decimated the fauna of the Hawai'ian archipelago, although decimated (killing one in ten, an old Roman punishment for a 'cowardly' legion) in no way begins to encompass the devastation, which accompanied their arrival with the rats and the dogs and the cats. Australia and New Zealand, separated from the former continent of Gondwanaland by millions of years and subject to their own unique development of avian, monotreme and marsupial evolution, could not withstand the onslaught of the aboriginal people from South East Asia, in the former, or the sea-faring Polynesians in the latter (and their parasites). Vast swathes of megafauna were wiped out by the encroaching humans. Giant wombats and giant kangaroos in Australia, the giant Moa birds of New Zealand, they all fell prey to that supreme hunter; man! The only animals to survive were small and largely inconspicuous; not worth the effort for the meagre meal they provided. Although now subject to the instincts of the predators that humans have introduced; with devastating effects.

It would, for humans, I think, be nice to lay this genocidal tendency on 'primitive' man but the trend has continued. Seventeenth century sailors (and beyond) had no compunction in seeing South Pacific giant tortoises as a source of food and thereby exterminating unique island species; the same goes for the hapless, and so trusting, dodo. (The elephant bird of Madagascar was probably reduced, by encroaching humans from Africa, to a non-viable population much earlier.)  The Great Auk, the Huia and the Passenger Pigeon were obliterated (in the nineteenth century, for goodness sake) from the planet by nothing other than pure, human greed. Everywhere that humans go, extinction seems to follow in their wake; even the whales in the sea-borne environment were not safe, and still aren't, despite your self-imposed moratorium!

It seems that Genesis 1:26 only enshrines, and encapsulates, what humans have effectively thought for 40,000 years. Predator/prey relationships are highly complex in the 'natural' world (in the absence of humans) but seem to balance over a precarious, but stable, fulcrum. The evolutionary 'arms-race' which seems to typify the relationship between cheetah and Thompson's gazelle, lion and wildebeest, red-tailed hawk and snow-shoe rabbit, cartilaginous shark and bony fish means that, predominantly, only the weakest, injured or sick succumb; the predator does not ever exhaust its prey leading to its own eventual demise. 

Humans pervert this relationship to a wholly 'unnatural' degree by forcing the 'prey' into an arms race with which it cannot compete. Human development is not constrained by any of the natural genetics of  normal evolution; it relies on culture and knowledge handed down from generation to generation by non-genetic means and so, 'grabs a lever', which is almost unbearable to withstand.

So, is it possible for humans to survive in, even, the short-to-medium term; 1-5,000 years? (The lifespan of most species, according to the fossil record is about 5 million years.) I, as a penguin, seriously doubt it. You, as a species, will so seriously denude the planet of the many species, which you deem to out-compete you, and more besides, which are dependent on those species, that you will so seriously withdraw from the atmosphere the precious oxygen that sustains you (and us) that you will eventually fall into so much dust. However, the bacteria will survive in all of the inconspicuous places; as they always have. They will give rise, once more, to an oxygen-rich environment and they will give rise to another 'Cambrian explosion', as they did before, and 'life', as we know it, will, once more, exist on this planet; the only known (to humans) life-supporting planet in the universe. That alone will sustain me until I die; and beyond.

So, life will go on; as long as the planet survives in its present, moderately-climated and water-filled form. That is both a sobering thought and an immensely hopeful one. Life, an almost inconceivable concatenation of events that it is difficult to believe is possible to achieve by chance but nonetheless happened, will go on; however long the delay. Life began on this planet some 1 billion years after its creation. It took life another 3 billion years to create the eukaryote cell which played the crucial part in complex, and therefore us, penguins and human, organisms. Do you really think that the bacteria, prokaryote cells, can't perform the same trick again, given their awesome reproduction rates?

In any future re-run of the cycle of evolution, humans will not inevitably be the end result. Perhaps hyper-intelligent fish or veliceraptors or even cognoscent insects may be he final result. No-one can predict evolution's progress. But one thing, from the evidence of the past, can be certain; evolution will always propel any organism to a more advanced state; it's why we are here! All it entails is the ability to take advantage of the environment which nature gives.

* I am sorry if I am preoccupied with giving my offspring names from Norse mythology but my own, and Fricka's, love of Wagner and an abiding affection for the Volsung Saga, das Niebelunglied and the Karavala means that I cannot help it. Fjörgen is not a particular well-known, or well-documented, Goddess but she was the mother of Thor; he of the mighty hammer of the Gods, Mjölnir. (Enter the banshee-like wailing and 'We come from the land of ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow' etc.....)

Friday, 7 August 2015

Survivors, Fortey and pick up a science-based book today

Language, style? They're odd don't you think?

I was reminded of this by a book (which I heartily recommend) which I have just read by one Richard Fortey, he of 'Trilobite' fame, which is about some of the survivors of the great extinctions of the past; I've been perusing recent palaeontological texts as I am sure you can imagine or can work out for yourself from recent posts. The book is called 'Survivors'; in case you want to look it up on Amazon.

Fortey is that rare gift to science writing; a Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins or Richard Feynman, who makes you want to read about things that you may not be remotely interested in. Who cares about trilobites, horseshoe crabs, velvet worms or bacteria that live in profoundly acidic and almost boiling water? And yet Fortey sucks you in with his prose so that, whether you will or no, you are drawn inextricably to turn the page.

I suspect that the 'gift' for writing is largely innate; Alexander Pope did not learn to write well, although constant criticism from his peers may have refined his style,  but perhaps it requires a different sensibility to early experience. There are few exponents of 'real' science who can articulate their views as well as Gould, Dawkins or Feynman (I acknowledge the others, Darwin, Huxley, Born, Gell-Mann, et al) but too often the 'layman' is forced to wade through a densely statistical analysis, full of unfamiliar terminology, regarding the whichness of the why to gain any insight whatsoever (McGhee's analysis of the late-Devonian extinction event, though interesting and informative, is a recent case in question - God, it is hard work!)

Yes, promulgators of 'popular science' do simplify and dress down controversy within the scientific community, but the best exponents of the genre, in the main, do not. They apply the same criteria to their writing for a general audience as they do to the papers which they publish in peer-reviewed journals (and I would emphasis peer-reviewed). Where there is dissent, it is acknowledged; where the author is biased, that too is acknowledged; where there is only speculation, it is not dressed up as 'fact' or the latest 'trend'. (Journalists please take note!)

However, what separates the gifted from the mundane is their enthusiasm for the subject; whether it be trilobites, quantum electrodynamics or the wonders, and idiosyncrasies, of the natural world. Interestingly, although you would never guess it from their books, Stephen Jay Gould was actually a palaeontologist specialising in fossil sea snails and Feynman was a safe-cracker and bongo player! (And a bit of a 'ladies-man' in the latter case, if the rumours are to be believed.) It is a pity that not all books for the non-specialist can be so entertaining as well as educational.

I well remember the first time that I picked up a book, lying on the shelves in the station, about science; Nobel Laureate Max Born's book about special and general relativity. I wasn't particularly interested in what Einstein had to say about the nature of time and space, such things are somewhat irrelevant down here when you have to concentrate very hard just to stay alive, but Bohr detailed the history (Newton, Maxwell etc) so succinctly and explained Einstein so well (without going into arcane mathematical jargon) that I soon became an avid reader of all things scientific, although without the background it can become all a bit 'hit or miss'; still, once I had cracked the station's Amazon account, I wasn't paying for anything so I could afford to buy the 'with hindsight, not so good' books.

If today's blog post has any point, which I sincerely doubt, it is this: science, whether biological, physical, economic, social, mathematical, environmental, is important to every sentient creature on the planet. It's a way of understanding the world which does not rely on blind faith, dogma or age-old customs; it's a route to empirical, observational knowledge that, in Popper's words, is 'falsifiable'. Too few humans in my view take the time or the effort to learn about what impacts your life in so many ways; EVERY single day.

So, take a chance; buy a science related book TODAY! You may even enjoy it.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

I just wish I knew where I was going with this!

I feel that, as I am referenced in the penguin's blogs, I, MG, have a, some may say dubious, right to usurp this blog for my own ends; you gonna stop me, penguin? I have your passwords! Just remember that before you start giving out information willy-nilly! Nobody can be trusted! Least of all me!

The last few blogs have led me to put fingers to a keyboard; mainly because of my own experiences. I have neither scientific studies, double-blind trials or any objective evidence to back up any assertions I might make; I rely on only my experience and anecdotal evidence, which is exactly what the penguin decries. However, I am not really trying to persuade you; merely trying to get you to think.

When I started 'secondary school' at age eleven, there were perhaps three (maybe four) who would have been deemed clinically obese out of a 'group' which numbered thirty or thirty-five. One was surely the result of parental indulgence (he was adopted), one was the exact opposite (left to his own devices, by and large) and one (possibly two) of which I had no knowledge. They were, as I was, considered to be 'different' (and that's important in the context of what I have to say) and so were ribbed, abused, often physically, and generally 'put on' by other kids.  Although to be lamented, this is normal behaviour for children, who do not often have the 'social constraints' of more mature adults.

As these eleven year olds started to mature physically during adolescence, the notion of 'obese' began to fade. Probably overweight, yes, but clinically obese, probably no. The rest showed typical masculine bodies, it was a single sex school, and the previously obese no longer attracted the abuse because they were only marginally different; not markedly different.

Now fast forward to age sixteen. The size of the group had risen to around ninety to a hundred and yet the clinically obese had not increased, numerically, to any noticeable degree in relative terms, maybe eight or ten; ie about the same percentage. There were those who had a distinct thickening of the waist and flabby buttocks but those were the ones that often presented with sick notes from their parents which asked for excusal from sport/swimming/sailing/canoeing/etc on the grounds that 'little Johnny' had a verruca or respiratory problems or a strained muscle (quite clearly attempts to 'hop the wag'). So, most kids as I remember, were of averagely normal weight for their size.

So why? A British diet during the late 50s and 60s was not ideal; there was a lot of fat, in the form of oil and lard, mostly for home-fried thick-cut chips (fries to you yanks) and bacon, faggots {look it up!] and sausages; potatoes, whether boiled, mashed or fried (and don't forget bubble and squeek - day old mashed potato mixed with cabbage and then fried until the underside went 'crispy-brown'); toast and dripping (beef fat) for breakfast and tea; spotted dick and suet pudding and jam for afters (dessert, I think it is now known - how refined), in which the main constituent was beef suet; read fat, again! We used to shovel potato crisp (chips to you yanks) and tomato ketchup rolls down our gullets like there was no tomorrow and four-an -(old)-penny sweets (candies to you yanks) went the same way as if they were going out of fashion. So, why were so few of us fat or obese?

I think, although I have no evidence whatsoever, that growing up in the fifties, we never had the possibility of TOO much to eat. Granted, I didn't starve but I think that I may have wanted, like Oliver, a little more. But that wasn't an option; you got what you were given and that was it, whether you LIKED it or not; Britain didn't really become affluent until the early seventies. Although it may seem strange to young folks today, corned beef, can you believe it, was a treat reserved for the occasional Sunday tea, otherwise it was SPAM or brawn (pig's brain in jelly), and a chicken (a capon) was reserved for Christmas. We used to have cheap cuts of beef and lamb and pork once a week on a Sunday but only chicken (not turkey) at Christmas!

So with this relatively, by modern standards, poor diet, I NEVER ate my greens or beans, how did we stay so thin and, more importantly, seemingly healthy; even if not toned. Exercise!  From the first day that I was allowed out to play with my friends in the street outside our houses, I can remember having 'stitch' as we raced so fast to catch one another. Whether it was 'kiss-chase' (my favourite) or cops and robbers or cowboys and indians or whether, even, commandos and Nazi soldiers at St Nazaire, I always remember being out of breath; that was how fast I tended to run. Any excess calories we might have accumulated through an intake of more food than we might have required was more than taken up by the frenetic scope of our DAILY recreations.

Even when I became too old for 'kiss-chase' (I did try to keep the tradition going with the convent school up the road in my teens but to no avail) still there was football, which I was lousy at, but still constrained to participate in; cross country running, which I wasn't bad at, in the cricket season (we played on average one game of cricket a month, the London clay was waterlogged the rest of the time); cricket; table tennis (which I assure you is far more energetic than most people think if you play to win, which I always did); sailing, which while not, in itself perhaps, is too demanding, requires a great deal of effort to swim to shore in the presence of a weir cascading water down at you at 30mph and your boat having capsized.

So what do I know?

Well, objectively, scientifically; diddly fuckin' squat! After all, I have had a stroke; what that does make me? An expert? No!  But something has changed over the past forty years and it isn't how much pudenda have got 'deforested'. I seriously believe that the inability of young people (under 11s) to burn off the excess calories they absorb, all kids like sugar, didn't we all, is seriously hampering their ability to achieve 'non obese' 'targets'. If you start off fat, then it's difficult to change, however much you want to.

I remain to be convinced of my own argument.

How's that for fairness for you!

PS Lobster for dinner tonight; how decadent of me! And no, I don't like the way they're killed either but, hell, it will be the first lobster I have had in twenty years! So, cut me some slack!

Gluten, Salt, Sugar and Levinovitz

The last post, 'Epicurius, Diet and great bovine wedges of the stuff ' was in part prompted by the arrival of a book from a recent Amazon order, which I of course did not pay for (how could I?); 'The Gluten Lie' by Alan Levinovitz PhD, although I had not read it before I wrote the post.

The title just prompted me to write about something you humans seem to obsess about. Well, I have now read the book and it should be 'required reading' for all those humans who are fed up (as I am) with the see-saw ramblings of a media obsessed with promoting 'superfoods', cancer-causing, Alzheimers- causing (surely the 'new' cancer as a 'terror weapon'), whatever-causing foods, fad diets and unscientific claims by so-called nutritionists and, dare I say, 'witch-doctor-charlatans' keen only on promoting their bank balance and how such claims oscillate backwards and forwards. Grains and vegetables only diets; meat only diets; rice and fruit juice only diets; living like a Neanderthal diets (Paleo); the Masai diet (meat and milk only); the list is both endless and, more importantly, very often mutually exclusive. They all can't be right, can they?

Dr Levinovitz is not a nutritionist, not a gastro-enterologist, not a neuroscientist, not even a medical professional; he is an assistant professor of religion. So what is Mr 'Objective-Atheist' Penguin doing reading a book written by a religious scholar?  Well, you see, Alan's not a creationist nut-job, a jihadi extremist or someone looking to push a new 'fad'; he studies sacred texts, myths, stories and tries to work out what they might have meant to the people that believed in them and just as importantly why they might have believed in them. His field of expertise is in ancient Chinese texts.

So what gives someone who reads the I-Ching for a living the authority to pronounce on diet? And why should I believe anything of what he says?

Actually, Doc L is perfectly placed to comment on the see-saw nature of 'food-fads', diets, and charlatan-claims based on little or no evidence, except the anecdotal, primarily because of what he does for a living. The same features that exemplify the nutritional advice handed down in often unfounded claims through a variety of best-sellers, which incidentally make their authors shed-loads of money from a guilt-ridden, overweight and gullible population (yes, we are talking about America here), are exactly the same features that crop up in the myths and stories which have been told throughout the ages. The myth of a former paradise-like Eden, the fear of the modern, faith unsupported by evidence, a sense of self-worth, the 'we know better' mindset, a desire to live forever (or at least for a very long time).

While much of the book is specifically related to events in the US, (Europe appears to base its assumptions on more recent and replicable research) it does nonetheless hold lessons for all people who desire not to be taken in by spurious, often unfounded, sometimes dangerous claims, which use pseudoscience or isolated, unreplicated genuine research to fool the gullible and to enhance their own wealth; hell some are even medical practitioners, although that is perhaps stretching the term 'doctors' to almost, if not, breaking-point.

So what the hell, I hear you cry. If people want to waste their money on the latest fad, why should I worry? Three reasons.

One, as I pointed out in my last post, perhaps one third of Americans believe themselves to be gluten intolerant; that by the way is mostly self-diagnosis. Is this dangerous? Well, it is if you have children and don't get yourself, and them, tested for coeliac disease, which is inheritable and does cause gluten intolerance, because your children may inherit it and if they choose not to go along with your 'fad' diet, they may end up ill with a whole range of symptoms.

Two, 'exclusion diets', cutting out specific foodstuffs which are largely based on the fat/carbs/protein trichotomy or on excluding specific ingredients, gluten, sugar, salt etc, are notoriously difficult to adhere to  in a society which is largely at the mercy of whatever supermarkets or mass-producers of foods deem it profitable to shovel into your maws. (Just look at how many overweight  people struggle to adhere to even a 'sensible' diet which seeks to perhaps lose a pound or two a week.) And they may actually make you more unhealthy than you were before, however much you may think you feel better; the placebo and nocebo effects can be quite powerful and they are the reason why double-blind trials of pretty much anything are the only trials trusted in the scientific community at large. (No-one, not the participants nor the researchers, know who's getting the active constituent and who's getting the sugar pill.)

Three, a belief in the kind of pseudoscience which makes up a large part of the nutritional advice handed out, can (and probably does) promote a general belief that such pseudoscience has any answers. The recent withdrawal by parents from the immunisation programme for children over unsubstantiated (and subsequently utterly debunked) claims from a single researcher of a link between the MMR (Measles/Mumps/Rubella [German Measles]) vaccine and Autism could have led to outbreaks of all three diseases far in excess of what we normally see and, if the movement became widespread and extensive, would we now be faced with pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria, tuberculosis or polio rearing their ugly heads again; God forbid to epidemic proportions. These are not pleasant childhood or adult diseases and at best can cause long lasting damage and yet parents were willing to risk their child's well-being on crap science or mindless dogma. (There are, I know, a very few number of children that may have an adverse reaction to a vaccine, just as some people are nut or penicillin averse, but is that any reason not to provide widespread protection?)

The best part of Levinovitz's book composes the final quarter. Having successfully debunked the main 'food-fads', he goes on to state that the clue to healthy eating is taking time to eat and prepare your meals once a day,  four times a week, no more than an hour for both activities (MG thinks that half of the enjoyment in eating is made up of a meal which you have cooked yourself); do nothing except talk while you're eating, no watching a movie, reading a book, driving; the rest of the time, do whatever you want. Go for a pizza, go to a gastropub, go out to a restaurant; ignore any literature about food, including nutritional information written on packaging. I, personally, would add; only eat as much as you want and don't be afraid to leave what you don't want because you are are full.

Having said this, Alan then states that if this is not for you, then you should try the 'UNpacked Diet', which he then details over the following twenty-six pages; this largely places the culprits for the 'food crisis' firmly in the hands of packaging, mostly plastic, and aluminium, which is supported by a range of evidence. I was initially surprised but the case against packaging was cogently argued and, in the light of the previous chapters in the book, seemed to be along the same lines.

The next twenty-six pages are devoted to 'calling out' every claim made in the preceding twenty-six by repeating the same text and, using call-outs, sidebars, debunking every major claim made! It just goes to show, and this was surely the intention, of how easily we can be fooled when dealing with something in which we have a limited, or non-existent, pre-existing knowledge and how, if you present it in a certain way, we are far more fool than we believe ourselves to be.

So, be vigilant, be aware, be sceptical, don't be afraid not to follow the pack and, most importantly, don't believe everything you read that you have to pay for and which lines someone else's pocket or else contains copious ads for the next food-fad!