Tuesday, 2 February 2016

In It For The Money?

One of the more laughable but still understandable claims made for herbalism is that we're in it for the money.  The idea is that we are either deceived or con merchants, and that we are able to make a pretty penny out of it.

The more charitable version of this is that the majority of conditions get better on their own, so if they happen to improve while someone is taking a herbal remedy, that is fallaciously chalked up to success by us lot and we continue to deceive ourselves because of this kind of thing.  If there is a trajectory of health and illness like this:

then the right hand side of that graph is, financially speaking, the herbalist's friend.  The other half might also be fine if you can sell the idea of things getting worse before they're going to get better. In the meantime in this view, we deceive ourselves or others into thinking we're helping our patients.

Just briefly, this is not true, two pieces of evidence being that many patients only come to see a herbalist once they've tried everything else they can think of without success and that measurable findings such as peak flow, degree of cover by skin lesions, resting blood pressure and the like can be seen to improve after treatment.  However, I'm not here to argue for the efficacy of herbalism but to point out how laughable it is that we are in it for the money.

Several years ago, I took the rather brave step of publishing a summary of our accounts year on year in the newsletter for our professional body.  I had suspected for a long time by that point that not many people were making a living this way because of the nature of our figures, but was open to the possibility that it was due to our location in the country or some other factor.  I was rewarded by a prolific response from other herbalists which revealed that we were by no means an isolated exception to the rule.  Very few people make a living from herbalism, by which I mean that they fail to generate much of an income from taking consultations and prescribing medicine.  There are also rather few "pure" herbalists, so those who practice herbalism who are making a living may be doing so from other complementary therapies rather than herbalism itself.  That said, there may be a way of making a living from herbalism by other methods, such as running continuing professional development workshops, writing books or lecturing.  The problem with these, however, is that they take money from other herbalists or potential herbalists - students.  This would also be fine if there was a greater level of income from acquiring new skills and practices which would then increase income and success, but that isn't what happens.  What in fact takes place is that herbalists give other herbalists their money and continue much as before.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Herbalism is useful and rewarding, and also fascinating, so in an ideal world there is no reason not to continue with it.  What needs to be borne in mind, however, is that it can only very rarely be a source of sufficient money to live on, and therefore herbalists either have to do something else to support themselves or have a means of support from somewhere else.  I would like to stress that this need not be a bad thing.  If we have no prospect of making enough money to live on, reducing reliance on that source of income means that there is no temptation to treat patients unprofessionally as a way of maximising profits.

A later response to my letter was a Master's thesis on the public profile of herbalists, which involved a survey at an NHS health centre among a randomly selected group of patients.  Something like 2% of the sample were aware of what a herbalist does.  Many people confused it with homeopathy and even those who did know what a herbalist does usually mixed up Western and Chinese herbalists.  When most people think of herbalism, they conceive of it in terms of dried herbs, pills and potions bought from chemists or health food shops and never even imagine there are professional herbalists.  The mark up on the herbs sold to the public over the counter is many times that of the herbs sold by a professional herbalist to the public and the quality is far lower.

It seems to me that the reason people think we're making money hand over fist is that they think it's about the expensive and relatively ineffective remedies sold in shops.  There may also be some confusion with Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and the like.  There is a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect where those who are relatively ignorant of a subject think they know a lot more than those who have more knowledge of it.  Education often reveals how little one knows about a subject.  Since the people concerned know little to nothing of herbalism, they suppose they know a lot more than the herbalists.  For instance, and this also occurs in home ed, they presume they know what it is and don't need to be told.  Experts, what do they know, eh?

However, there is more than this and it can be applied more widely than to the alleged snake oil vendors such as myself.  Specifically, there is a tendency to pad out herbalism courses with irrelevant and poorly applicable subject areas and also there is a tendency to over-sell the courses as vocational.  However, this is not a feature specific to herbalism or complementary medicine.  It's actually something which happens across the board.  Performing and fine arts courses are said to be other examples.  There are financially successful results there, yes, but they are often the exception rather than the rule.

Another, again entirely true, allegation made against complementary medicine courses is the secrecy of the course content.  The content and syllabus is not available to the general public.  This is a very common practice.  I tested this by looking at the syllabi of courses such as engineering, physics and psychology from Russell Group universities, and found that there was a similar degree of secrecy.  Some higher ed institutions do publish their entire course content online, for example MIT, but this is because they profit from the likes of good physical facilities, the opportunity to network and good staff-student ratios.  It is an indictment, but not of complementary medicine so much as the profiteering of universities and their ilk.

One thing that bothers me about all this is that the people who make this allegation often see themselves as sceptics.  They are sceptical of what they see as complementary medicine.  They rightly criticise the nature of complementary medicine course content but fail to note that the same criticisms, and they are serious, apply across the board in many universities and many disciplines.  They also assume they are well-informed about something about which they are not, a well-known cognitive bias, and yet they are apparently unaware of that cognitive bias when they are very ready to accuse us of the likes of confirmation bias.  This bias leads them to think we're raking money in from the gullible public when in fact nothing of the kind is taking place.  It's not easy to make a good living out of anything if you haven't already got some kind of fiscal or social capital behind you and the same is true of herbalism as it is of all sorts of other areas.  They also fail to mention the dubious ethics of taking the cash off other people acting in good faith to improve the lot of others in a way which accords more with their conscience.  Moreover, they seem to be completely unaware that they are doing any of these things.

Anyone who is in this for the money is going to be seriously disappointed unless they're extremely lucky.  I am aware that like everyone else I have cognitive biasses, although most of the time I don't know what they are.  People who describe themselves as sceptics seem to be relatively unaware that they too are subject to these limitations.  They are in fact not sceptics.  Sceptics, usually spelt with a K because they are apparently reacting to American religious fundamentalism or copying that reaction in a different cultural context where it's less of an issue and therefore spell it in the American way, are in that narrow sense people who suspect opinion stated as facts.  In the broader sense of people who believe knowledge is rarely possible, I am a sceptic.  It can be a lot easier to perceive the opinions of others as factual than it is to recognise your own opinions are those, not necessarily facts.  Moreover, there is an emotional element to truth which they seem to gloss over entirely.  Suppose your house has burned down.  You might say "I know my house has burned down but I can't believe it", because you don't want to believe it.  These kinds of bias are healthy and part of most people's mental make up, and it doesn't make sense to deny that they exist and form an important part of thought.  Denying them is not intuitively a good thing.

Therefore, no, we are not in it for the money, and the main reason people think we are is that they know nothing about herbalism, don't even know that they know nothing, and don't want to be less ignorant than they currently are.  In the meantime, we have very tough lives which they make even worse by propagandising ignorantly against our good will and honest attempts to improve the lot of our patients.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Clarkson, Home Ed and Gender

Once again I'm able to write a post which can appear on both blogs.  Due to that fact, it will probably manage to look off-topic on both.

Seven years ago, the then "Labour" government, which has possibly since shed its inverted commas, decided that full time responsible parenting was wrong because the parents concerned didn't deserve to have kids and would abuse them by not exposing them to bullying and the like, so it needed to be persecuted and discouraged through the Children, Schools and Families Bill.  People who aren't screwed up probably don't buy enough worthless tat made in Chinese slave labour factories or something, so clearly something had to be done to ensure that people led emptier and sadder lives.  Consequently, a lot of people who in normal circumstances would rather have shot themselves than vote Conservative found themselves forced to do so in good conscience.  Since many such people were not wealthy, this was an utterly selfless act.  They were fully aware that it would lead to them sinking into such things as utter penury, starvation, homelessness and suicide, but like most people, they recognised that sometimes you have to put your children first.

Today, those people are in the unfortunate position of having further pressure put on home ed due to excuses such as the distrust of certain madrassahs (I don't know the proper plural) and the failure of Welsh social services to do their job, which makes the whole exercise look rather pointless.

It so happens that Jeremy Clarkson has now, appropriately, also gone into reverse gear.  I hesitate to give him the publicity but since these blogs have only a very small audience, it's probably not a big issue.

Back when we were campaigning against the CSF Bill, we encountered some rather unexpected allies, one of which was the Conservative and Unionist Party and another of which was Jeremy Clarkson.  Rather surprisingly to most of us, we found that he was very supportive.  The original article is now behind a paywall, so I'll link instead to this, which is a fair summary.  I should also point out that although both I and this article are religious, most of the views expressed in it are shared by the majority of families whose children have not gone to school or been withdrawn from it even though many such families are non-religious or pagan, or of course Muslims.

Clarkson's argument here seems to be that the government have overreacted to a single serious incident.  Home ed families generally don't connect the Khyra Ishaq incident to home ed at all, except as a tasteless way of using a poor girl's tragic death as a political football to foist oppressive schooling on everyone, and his view may not have been exactly that but he was nonetheless an ally for once.  You can't stop the bad things from happening in this way and often you make things worse by interfering while not even solving the problem you are supposedly interfering to prevent.

I don't want to comment on the situation in Wales because plenty of people whose children are currently "home edded" will be able to take on the situation much more directly, and we aren't currently directly involved, and just like teachers, who are not always very involved in home ed, I run the risk of saying something ill-informed and inappropriate.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Clarkson's recent transphobic article is less wonderful.  I don't want to fuel traffic to his article so instead I shall link to the Huffington Post take on it.  Google it if you like, but bear in mind that it will make it more popular and play into his hands.  One of the issues he mentions is that of M2F pregnancy, which is naturally significant for me, apparently more so than for most other trans women.  F2M pregnancy already happens of course:

My personal view on M2F pregnancy for myself is that it would probably only happen as a result of vivisection and early on at least it would be an experiment which would risk the continued existence of the person-to-be, and therefore would probably be irresponsible.  That's my personal thought on it.  If my situation was different and M2F pregnancy was established, given the right life circumstances I wouldn't hesitate for a moment.

Note that this consideration is not about being a "special snowflake" but about how to act responsibly in these circumstances.

Leaving aside the mpreg issue, Clarkson expresses quite a common concern, which is that children who engage in gender play should not be encouraged to seek gender reassignment by their parents because it could be on a whim.  This is unfortunately seriously misinformed.  On the whole, parents know their children better than strangers and they are not about to submit them to a life-long course of powerful medication with life-threatening possible side-effects and major surgery, along with all the rest, unless they realise the situation otherwise is extremely serious and potentially lethal in itself, in the form of suicide.

There is also an irony here, in that one reason children end up getting withdrawn from school or not sent in the first place is that they face bullying and persecution for gender non-conformity there.  In other words, it's a reason for home education.  Moreover, the real situation is very often that parents only do this with a heavy heart and when it becomes clear that they were mistaken about their daughter's or son's gender identity.  For many of them it's a grieving process over the loss of the girl or boy they thought they had and it's not a case of feckless fantasising parents indulging childish whims.

This inconsistency in Mr Clarkson's views is therefore that home education is not indulging the vagaries of children or being excessively laissez faire with them, probably partly because he trusts parents' judgement on their best interests and willingness to follow those, but for some reason respecting their gender identity is, even though it can be a motive for home education in the first place.  In one area he trusts their acquaintance with their children and in the other he doesn't, even though the second is a subset of the first.  It's sometimes the same parents.

This of course reflects lack of knowledge and over-simplification, and it leads to an inconsistent belief system.  This is where I get a bit political.  People are often experts on their own lives although they sometimes lack insight.  They often imagine that they are also experts on other people's lives through a failure of empathy.  Other people's problems can seem a lot easier than one's own.  For instance, I'm pretty sure the Conservative Party is almost completely devoid of malice. They are not the nasty party.  They are, however, a misinformed party.  Since many of the people at the top of the Tories are upper class and wealthy, they tend to be confident and optimistic, and that carries them through. It's relatively easy for a Tory minister to spend a week on benefits and coast on through, not only because they already have a nice house and the like and because it's more expensive to be poor than it is to be rich, but because they are buoyed up by their past and the confidence, social capital and optimism it has engendered in them.  When they look at poor people, it then appears to them in good faith that they can in fact easily get out of their predicament.  There are of course all sorts of reasons why they can't, and these include the effects that stress, poverty and lack of perceived opportunities have on confidence and mental health.

Nor are parties traditionally associated with the downtrodden immune from this.  Exactly the same process is probably happening the other way round with these people.

Hence, leaving aside the sound-bitey and opportunistic aspects of Jeremy Clarkson's passage, I would say that it serves as an interesting illustration of a lack of joined-up thinking.  However, transphobic he absolutely is, but also we must never forget that he has also, amazingly, fought our corner in a major establishment newspaper in the past, and that because of his very inconsistency, trans children and their families may to some extent have benefitted from his views even though what he says now is ignorant and damaging.

Life's never simple is it?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Learning A Language

I recently made a rather late New Year's resolution to learn one new Arabic and one new Japanese phrase every day in 2016.  I hope I keep it up although I tend not to stay on task so I may not. Another hope is that there will be a learning curve in the sense that I will start to notice similarities and patterns I can then apply more widely, for instance the root S-L-M in salaam, Muslim and 'Islam.  Semitic languages have the added challenge for people literate in a Latin script that of them, only Maltese uses the Latin alphabet, and in fact I do plan to take a look at Maltese as part of my strategy as some of its vocabulary remains Semitic.

Arabic, more specifically Egyptian Arabic, is one of the languages our daughter knows something of.  This is because she used to go out with an Egyptian, and that motivation is pretty powerful, as I've found myself.  As a child, the German taught to me in school didn't take and this partly resulted from not having a firm reason for wanting to learn it and partly down to the teaching.  The number of pupils in my year who even got grades in O-level German were in single figures, let alone those passing.  This in itself is of interest because I was in fact highly motivated on an intellectual level to learn German, so it's rather odd that that didn't translate into proficiency in the language.  All that was to change a few years later the year after I graduated and started going out with a German.  I then had a strong personal connection with the language and a good reason to learn it - I was in any case interested in it as an attribute of my partner and also in order to share the burden of attempting to communicate verbally.  It seemed unfair that one of us should have to make the extra effort to express herself in a second language when the other didn't, so I learnt German, and found it to be extremely easy.  I proceeded to read for a Masters in continental philosophy during which students were expected to acquire a reading knowledge of French or German during their time of study, so I read the works concerned in German and largely ignored the French ones, although I did also generally read them in French too when I had to.  Disappointingly, those students who were not already fluent in French or German at the start of the course did not become proficient in them by its end, although of course I did.  Some of them did try, but not for long.

By the end of the course, my German was good enough for me to get paid for translation and I was close to being bilingual.

A couple of years later, I had a daughter with an English partner who was, however, fluent in Castilian and French, and decided to attempt to bring her up bilingually.  Learning to speak is the example par excellence of home education because virtually everyone is home educated at the stage of first language acquisition, and the feat of learning language is formidable.  Incidentally I reject the idea that humans have a specific aptitude for language but I won't go into that here except to say that the ability to do something as daunting as learning a language within the first thousand days of your life, when you can't even hold a knife and fork and aren't even toilet-trained or capable of dressing yourself basically means the human capacity for learning is greatly underestimated.  There is also the question of how much in the way of knowledge and skills can be seen as linguistic.  For instance, the fact that a doctor has learnt the word "syndesmosis" will lead her to being able to generalise about that particular kind of joint in a manner which would be a lot harder if she didn't know the word and what it meant, and go on to understand syndesmotic injuries better.  What has been learnt there is as much a new word as a set of medical facts.

Back to our daughter.  I made a point of speaking to her equally in German and English.  The first item she appeared to name was the door to the flat upstairs from us.  However, it wasn't clear whether she used the word "Tür" or "door" since her diction wasn't entirely that of an adult.  This raises the issue of where meaning is.  Is a child's first word something the child intends or is it the first successful communication between the child and another?  For all I know, our daughter may have considered herself to have been using words for ages before that, and I can remember myself being misunderstood by adults and getting very frustrated in the process because they couldn't understand what I was saying.  In fact I am constantly amazed at how patient children seem to be at that stage when they're surrounded by people unable to understand their needs or anything they're saying, but for some reason they don't constantly have tantrums, although of course they do have quite a few, which in the circumstances is fair enough really.  I can say that from a distance of nearly two decades of course!

My project was not very successful.  It turned out that our daughter regarded Castilian and French as possible other languages which she was motivated to some extent to speak but she saw German merely as a noise one of her parents made for no apparent reason.  This was because French and Castilian were spoken by lots of people around her and she could see an immediate practical reason for learning it, whereas German was just spoken by me and my ex.

A rather more successful undertaking was my practice of speaking to her in something like Elizabethan English.  This ultimately led to her being able to read Shakespeare with less of a language barrier and also act more convincingly in his plays, and she is now reading English Literature at university, so in a way that worked out.  To her, reading Hermia's lines in  A Midsummer Night's Dream is just like watching the latest episode of her favourite soap or singing along to a contemporary pop song, and this has stood her in good stead.  Moreover, her German is not completely dead.  She can still substantially understand German when she hears it and she speaks in German in her sleep.  Furthermore, her willingness to learn Egyptian Arabic when motivated to do so was doubtless down to the attitude that nothing is really that daunting, an approach instilled in her by the fact that she didn't go to school.

The point of all this is that motivation is key.  If a child, and often an adult, can't perceive a captivating reason for learning something, she won't find it interesting enough to learn it.  In school, there may be a disconnection between these  for a variety of reasons.  It may separate the pupils from the practical use of their skills and from their community, and to some extent the children need to stay in step with the order of the curriculum and the rate at which topics are covered through the very nature of the institutions.  Having said that, I can't say that I have any insight into why there was such a big discrepancy between how poorly I managed to learn German at school when I was in fact fascinated and obsessed by foreign languages at the time and how well I learnt it later unless it's to do with having a personal connection.  It so happened that even as I was failing to learn German, I was succeeding in learning Mandarin Chinese, Sanskrit, Finnish, Russian and several other languages, though somewhat poorly no doubt, and I have long since forgotten most of what I learned.  School to me was an irritating distraction from study and learning, although socially it was a marvellous escape from home, not because there was anything wrong with my home but just because it was part of growing up.  Home ed also provides plenty such escape, incidentally, but that's not the subject of this post.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Star Wars and the Bible

I don't really have a blog to stick this thought on, so I'm putting it here.  Consequently I have to make it either about herbalism or education in some way.  What's the connection then?

Hard science fiction can be educational.  In case you haven't heard the term, which incidentally always reminds me of the idea of hard core and soft core pornography and I wonder if that's how it originated,  There is an excellent resource out there, found all over the internet nowadays, called the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness , which ranks works in the genre in terms of plausibility.  The harder it is, the more plausible it is, and working often ends up being shown.  You shouldn't always show your working though, because it can detract from the story.

I've mentioned before why 'Star Wars' is not science fiction, and this seems particularly apposite this morning with the first official British astronaut travelling to low-Earth orbit.  I wonder sometimes whether people are more interested in the film than the actual guy going into space, but to be fair I have no idea whether that's so and it's perfectly feasible there are loads of people who are equally into both.  I sometimes imagine a future where science fiction has become a completely separate genre occurring in a fictional but alternate world.  In the twenty-third century, if there are still human beings around, they could be looking at Star Trek and being enthusiastic about it even though it will be ostensibly contemporary by then.

This is one of the weird things about Star Wars of course - it does not occur at a specific time and place.  All we know is that it's set "long, long ago in a galaxy far away".  One of the effects this has is to make it aim at universality, so it becomes a kind of myth which has themes applicable universally but whose accoutrements are interchangeable with mythical ones, such as light sabres with swords.  This occurs in other areas of popular culture - there's a video game engine, for example, which uses image intensifier goggles as a power-up in one game but a magic spell for seeing in the dark in another.  To me, this stops it from being science fiction, but that doesn't mean it can't still be educational.  It tries to express myth-style universal truths in a way which appeals to the mass market.  The general effect may be positive or negative because of the nature of the message.  It would be interesting to try to re-write Star Wars as a mediaeval-style fantasy with sword and sorcery, but I would be surprised if this hasn't already been done.

I am of course Christian, and therefore believe that what's expressed in the Bible is about the same kind of universals which the likes of Star Wars expresses.  This has been kind of sarcastically acknowledged in the parody or protest religion of Jediism, which people have for example put on census forms as a protest against not being able to express clearly that they are non-religious.  Some people, however, do take Jedi values rather seriously and as valid ways of living one's life.

Before I go on, I want to point out that we live in a culture which is heavily influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that religion can be approached anthropologically rather than as a faith to be followed.  For me, the Bible is a sacred text but that doesn't have to mean it is for you or for this to be a project someone can feel positive about without being religious.  You don't have to believe in the Olympians to enjoy the Odyssey or find it educational.  The same applies to the Bible.  The mere fact that it happens to be my religion shouldn't cloud someone's judgement about my view of its value.  That would not be true scepticism.

There are such things as graphic novel versions of the Bible.  They are aimed at people who are less likely to be interested in the Bible than those who are more enthusiastic about the plain text version.  I presume they simply retell Bible stories in comic book form.  There is also stuff like The Message, which I understood previously to be a paraphrase rather than a translation but which some people say is a translation nonetheless.  This does raise an issue in fact, but I'll come back to that.

There is also a Klingon Bible Translation Project which is proceeding extremely slowly.  Some time in the 1990s, I was aware that the Book of Jonah had been translated into Klingon.  I actually wonder if it's really a translation from the Hebrew or from an English version.  It hasn't got much further even twenty years later - three short books of the Tanakh have now been translated plus a couple of Psalms.

Okay, so what I'm proposing is that I will attempt to retell the Bible in a space opera setting.  Clearly I won't be doing the whole Bible in one go in the next week.  Apart from anything else, 'Albedo 0.36' isn't finished even in its first draft.  The reason I want to do this is that a space opera setting of the Bible is likely to appeal to a different demographic than usual, and since I have faith in its universality, it seems likely that there will be a way to present the texts involved in such a setting without distorting their meaning, and in fact to illustrate what to me is the fact that the Bible speaks to all people in all places and times equally well.  I'm not saying we will actually have a space opera type future, any more than Star Wars is supposed to be realistic in that respect - in that case it isn't even set in the future.

So far I have retold the first three chapters of Genesis.  In doing so, I became aware that I had to take up a particular theological position, because as a mainstream Christian, I have difficulty in reading the early chapters of Genesis as anything other than a description of the Fall of the human race.  I also became aware that in order to make it futuristic, I would have to imagine a world in which humans had got as far as having space travel, or almost having it, before they experienced the Fall.  That to me raised the question of whether space travel would even exist if we were not sinful.  I chose to make the entire planet Earth Eden, meaning that history up until space travel was achieved would probably have to be utopian until whatever it is that goes wrong happens.  I also have to be careful depicting exactly what goes wrong.

This is not a translation.  My grasp of Hebrew is exceedingly poor, so I am paraphrasing an English version.  The magnitude of the task of re-telling the entire Bible is vast, so I realise now that I am going to have to take a piecemeal approach.

Something like this has been done before, although I've been unable to track it down. As a child, I heard an audio story about Jonah in a space setting.  I have to be careful to acknowledge that that exists, but can't consciously remember it very well.  Having said that, the book of Jonah is particularly apt for this purpose.  There's also a French story Jonas, by Gérard Klein which does something a little similar although it doesn't follow the Bible text or story at all closely.

Therefore, everything seems to point to Jonah as being the best place to start this project.  In order to do that, I will also need to build the world it's in.  For example, where is the space opera version of the place Jonah fled to, Tarshish?  I would say one of the Magellanic Clouds or possibly Sagittarius DSph - a remote location outside the Milky Way but relatively nearby.  What will the whale or fish be?  Perhaps an artificial organism akin to the aptly-named Leviathan in Farscape, or perhaps just a giant life form native to interstellar space?  Will there be intelligent aliens?  My answer to that last one is in fact yes, but not many of them.  I'm certainly not going to say every planet I depict, say  Nineveh, is populated by aliens, because I see our situation as a uniquely human problem and a planet called Nineveh wouldn't have sinful native life forms, so it will have to be a colony planet.  However, the angels which keep us out of Eden are represented by aliens keeping us off Earth, so there are some aliens, and presumably the Nephilim would have to be aliens too.

This is by no means going to be hard science fiction.  It's space opera, which is seen as  a subgenre of science fiction but isn't.  Space opera emphasises the likes of warfare, melodrama, chivalry and the like.  I have absolutely no problem with setting the Bible in that genre, although it raises the question of what a hard science fiction version of the Bible would be like.

So anyway, here's my plan for the next few weeks:
  • Finish the first draft of Albedo 0.36 and send it to GAILE.
  • Write a space opera version of the book of Jonah.
I shall now adjourn to plan the second project, but the first is still very much in my mind.  It's very close to completion and it'd be a great shame to abandon it now.

There you go, I hope that was at least a little bit education-y.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Where Do Zombies Get Their Energy From?

I've been watching a lot of 'The Walking Dead' recently and it's begun to bother me a bit because I'm not sure where the walkers (zombies) get their energy from.  I have seen zombies which have been wandering around for years which are clearly still moving even if they haven't eaten anyone, and this makes very little sense to me.  Whereas it's true that if you don't need to make your own heat, it helps your food last longer, it just seems a bit excessive.  Therefore I thought I'd set down a few ideas here.

First of all, the laws of thermodynamics themselves:

0. (The "zeroth" law):  If one object is at the same temperature as a second object and the second object is at the same temperature as a third, then the first object is at the same temperature as the third.

1. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another.

2. The entropy of a closed system tends towards a maximum.  Everything wears out and runs down, often in the form of heat equalising everywhere, so for instance a bath or a hot drink warms the room slightly as it cools to the slightly raised room temperature and a splash of water turns into ripples, which then smooth out and the water surface is flat, or an ice cube melts and cools the water it's in.  Hence perpetual motion is impossible, even perpetual motion of the entire Universe - the heat death of the Universe.

3. The coldest possible temperature is -273.15 degrees C, but it can never be reached because it always takes the same amount of energy to halve the temperature of something.

Animals generally get their energy from food.  Sugar, more specifically glucose, is either eaten directly or converted from other kinds of food (e.g. starch), then gradually oxidised as it is broken down, releasing energy as if it's burning.  Most of this is done in animals via the Krebs Cycle, but a relatively small amount of energy is released by further breaking down the end product, lactic acid, in a process called glycolysis which doesn't need oxygen.  There are also other processes around which do the same thing, e.g. yeast converting sugar to ethanol and some bacteria converting ethanol to acetic acid.  Plants also get their energy from food in the same way, but unless they're carnivorous they create that food themselves using the energy from sunlight, and that food is either sugar or made from sugar.

There are also a few bacteria which get energy from food in a different way, such as by combining it with sulphur instead of oxygen and producing hydrogen sulphide.  However, by far the most efficient way of getting energy from food is the Krebs cycle, and as far as I know any large living thing which can move its body around uses the Krebs cycle, although if it moves fast or hasn't got much oxygen available to it, it builds up an "oxygen debt" which must later be paid, such as by panting.

Zombies are therefore a problem.  They don't breathe and blood does not circulate around their bodies.  Therefore, their cells are not getting oxygen, and since the cells are also dead, the mitochondria, where the Krebs cycle happens, aren't working either.  They are therefore not getting their energy from the Krebs cycle and if they are moving using the same mechanisms as living things generally, they aren't able to get enough energy from food to move themselves.  They will run down eventually and their bodies will stop moving.  They do eat, of course, but their digestive systems also need energy to work, e.g. to swallow food and secrete digestive juices.

However, not all chemical reactions are like that.  Burning is a much simpler reaction which releases energy (e.g. in petrol engines and cookers).  However, it does so by completely converting the substances from which it releases energy into oxides apart from the ones which can't be combined with oxygen, and it tends to do so very quickly.  Hence zombies could possibly work like petrol engines or fires, but they would consume themselves rapidly in the process and crumble into ash if that was what they were doing.  Not quite sure about this actually as I can imagine each cell in a zombie's body working like a little petrol engine or something, but then the carbon dioxide wouldn't be carried away and there would be no oxygen provided, so even then the fire would go out.

Having said that, matter is energy and contains a lot of energy.  Not all energy is chemical, and chemistry only works to release relatively tiny amounts of energy from chemicals while leaving most of the atoms and molecules alone and unchanged, just rearranged.  Atomic energy is different, and can be released in much larger amounts.  This works because atomic nuclei, at the centre of atoms, are held together by something called the Strong Nuclear force.  Like charges normally push each other apart, but this doesn't happen in atoms because there is a stronger force than electricity and magnetism holding them together.  Atoms of different sizes need different amounts of energy to hold themselves together.  If an atom is changed from one kind to another and the second kind needs less energy to hold it together, it will release some of that extra energy.  This is what happens during radioactive decay.

If zombies are nuclear powered, they would have to be highly radioactive and as well as killing and attempting to eat people, they would give them cancer and radiation sickness even if they escaped the immediately fatal process of being eaten.  I quite like the idea of radioactive zombies.  This could also mean that if enough zombies got together in one place, they would engage in a runaway nuclear reaction rather than a controlled one such as in a nuclear reactor and explode like a nuclear weapon.  This also appeals to me because it makes them even more dangerous.

Even nuclear power and atom bombs only release a tiny fraction of the energy present in matter.  According to Einstein, the energy present in matter is equivalent to the mass of the matter multiplied by the square of the speed of light.  In other words, E=mc^2.  This means, for example, that there is enough energy in the average adult human corpse to provide all the energy used by the United States for thirty years.  Hence zombies could conceivably be surviving by gradually converting all of their mass into energy, and they could keep going for millions of years that way.  However, the only known way of doing that is by bringing matter and antimatter together.  If a zombie contains wormholes to another Universe where the body of a corresponding zombie is made of antimatter rather than matter, that would be one way this could be happening, but it would have to happen extremely slowly or a single zombie body would probably release enough energy in one go to destroy the Earth completely.  Now that really would be a zombie apocalypse.

Monday, 5 October 2015


I'm tempted to put this whole blog entry in yellow, but it'd be illegible so I won't bother.

This is another home ed staple - oobleck.  Once again I'll start off by describing the practicalities and then move on to what it's all about.

Oobleck is a mixture of corn starch and water often referred to as custard.  However, it isn't really good quality custard in terms of food but an illustration of the weird things liquids can do sometimes.  The recipe is one part of water to one part of cornstarch, thoroughly but slowly mixed.  You end up with a liquid which will flow if poured, but if you hit it hard it will feel firm.  If you squeeze it in your hand, it will form a ball but that ball will then gradually trickle between your fingers and drip off it.  If you plunge a fist into a jug of it slowly, you can then lift the jug with your hand.  It also does entertaining things on speaker cones:

If you fill a swimming pool with it and stomp your way across it, it will support your weight:

Oobleck or "custard" and its physical properties also led to a bit of an obsession by various people on the Halfbakery, such as custard-filled speed bumps, custard-filled trousers, custard guns, custard running tracks and eventually the overuser of custard destroyer and the like.  There's also Ustard.  Oobleck occupies a strange position in my mindmap where two of the major things I've done overlap.

Custard, as Halfbakers call it, is one of many "non-Newtonian fluids".  This needs to be explained.  In the case of custard, the property is shear thickening.  I should probably explain what a Newtonian fluid is first.  A Newtonian fluid is one whose deformation is linear with respect to stress.  In other words, the harder you splash it, the further it goes.  What with the world being an imperfect place, where for example lightning doesn't strike in a straight line and trees are not brown cylinders with green spheres on top, strictly speaking most liquids are not Newtonian.  For instance, pond skaters can do this:

"Amenbo 06f5520sx" by Cory. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.1 jp via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amenbo_06f5520sx.jpg#/media/File:Amenbo_06f5520sx.jpg
and it's possible to float needles and even razor blades on water, meaning that there can be quite a lot of stress applied to water before it starts to behave in a Newtonian manner.  Air and other gases are also fluids, and are closer to being Newtonian than water.  Water is in various ways a very unusual substance, one of which is its surface tension, which is stronger than most other liquids, an exception being liquid selenium.

Other examples of very non-Newtonian fluids are quicksand, wet cement, toothpaste, ketchup, silly putty and non-drip gloss paint.  From a home ed point of view, lots of these are easily available. 

 Ketchup is notoriously good at getting stuck in a bottle and then suddenly splurting out when you bang it too hard on the bottom while gradually flowing out under the influence of gravity, although recent redesigns of ketchup bottles have made this less problematic.  This is the opposite to custard, shear-thinning, and is due to the presence of xanthan gum.  That is, the stress put on ketchup makes it flow more than expected, or rather, than if it was water or even a much thicker liquid like mercury.

Non-drip gloss paint is an interesting one because it's easy to spread on a surface but won't flow down it because its viscosity (thickness) depends on time more than force.

"Toothpasteonbrush" by Thegreenj - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toothpasteonbrush.jpg#/media/File:Toothpasteonbrush.jpg

Another kind of non-Newtonian fluid is toothpaste, which is like water as described above only more so.  It can hold a peak because it requires a certain amount of force before it'll move at all, but after that point behaves quite normally.  (Incidentally, toothpaste is easy to make from chalk powder or dried clay with hopefully vegetarian glycerine.)

The quicksand problem is an example of the effect of shear-thinning.  Quicksand itself is about twice as dense as a human body so it should be impossible to sink entirely into it.  The thing to do to escape is to move slowly.  However, it can become so sticky that it would take a car to pull someone out and it also means things can happen like the tide coming in before you get out or a Boa constrictor coming up and eating you.  There was a point in the 1960s when 3% of all newly released films had a scene where someone got stuck in quicksand.

Silly putty is a particularly nice example of a non-Newtonian fluid.  I won't link to it because that would be advertising, but for people who haven't experienced it, it's a substance which is like modelling clay when you move it slowly but if you throw it, it will bounce, and if you drop it off a high building it will actually shatter.  Left to itself, it will gradually form a pool, which however can have started off as any shape.  Technically, silly putty is mainly polydimethylsiloxane, which is a polymer (chain of molecules) made of silicon, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen:

It's a fairly exciting substance because it behaves like the kind of substances which make up living things, such as latex, but is largely silicon-based, raising the as yet unanswered question of whether there's life out there in the Universe based on silicon rather than carbon.  I made a video about that once which was quite popular.  Anyway, the reason it behaves as it does is that its chains are very flexible, so it can hold its shape well over short periods but over long periods tends to droop under the influence of mechanical forces such as gravity.  It can also be used in hair conditioner.

At very low temperatures, helium becomes a very special kind of fluid called a superfluid.  This is particularly interesting because it flows uphill and leak through solid objects.  It has no viscosity at all, so it can be used to produce a fountain which never stops flowing:

One thing which interests me about superfluid liquid helium is what would happen if you tried to make custard with it.  That is, if you took a fine powder of frozen hydrogen and suspended it in liquid helium, what would happen?

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Diet Coke And Mentos

Like ooblek, this is another home ed classic, and of course it's out there in the ether with a load of other things like vinegar and bicarb.

What it comes down to basically is that you get a two litre bottle of Diet Coke, make a paper funnel and post five sugar-free Mentos down into the neck of the bottle.  Then you run away very fast unless you want to get covered in Diet Coke fizz, and you might I suppose, depending on your age.

It used to shoot ten metres in the air.  When we did it at John's Lee Wood home ed camp back in the 'noughties, it did exactly that.  However, for some reason Coca Cola decided they would make it less spectacular, so nowadays it only shoots up a couple of metres, but it's still quite impressive.

The experience of going into a shop and buying sugar-free Mentos and Diet Coke is quite a daunting one for me and this is the only reason I would ever do that.  Here are the ingredients for Diet Coke:

and here are the ingredients for sugar-free Mentoes:

Before I go into those lists and their ethical and other implications, I just want to describe the uses of the activity for educational purposes and a few other things about the process.  You should try not to shake the bottle before you try it, you can time the fountain and measure its maximum height, and you can also use different combinations of drinks and mints to see if there's a difference in these. I've used fizzy water, generic cheap sugar-free drinks, sugary drinks and Diet Coke itself in sequence.

You should also do it outside.

Another thing you can do is to make a soft drink of your own gradually by adding the ingredients one by one and seeing what happens.  What surprised me about this most was that the ingredient which made the biggest difference was actually caffeine!  I'll come back to that.

What's happening then?  Well, it's not a chemical reaction. If you look at a glass with something fizzy in it, you will often notice that there are strings of bubbles rising to the surface from a few points on the glass:

"Drinking glass 00118" by © Nevit Dilmen. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drinking_glass_00118.gif#/media/File:Drinking_glass_00118.gif
(I hope that's a moving picture).  This is because a fizzy drink is a solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water and when something comes out of solution it often "crystallises" around an irregularity of some kind.  This is similar to the process whereby raindrops form around dust particles in the air.

Mentos, particularly sugar-free ones, work because they have a kind of "crazy-paving" surface like this:

"Desiccation-cracks hg" by Hannes Grobe 08:01, 27 October 2007 (UTC) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Desiccation-cracks_hg.jpg#/media/File:Desiccation-cracks_hg.jpg
When you put a mento into Diet Coke, most of the carbon dioxide in solution forms into bubbles on the corners of these cracks and comes out in one go.  Hence the fountain.

The energy of the fountain also illustrates the difference between potential and kinetic energy.  Just as a battery stores charge which can be used for all sorts of purposes, the energy used to get the gas into the drink in the first place is stored as potential energy in the coke bottle.  This also applies to shaking, bumping or dropping a bottle of pop, which will then go everywhere if you open it soon afterwards.  I realise this is obvious, but the point is that you can think of it as a way of demonstrating the storage of energy and the difference between the two types.  Interestingly, possibly just to me, if you leave a bottle which has been bumped for a bit and open it later, it won't overflow even if it hasn't lost any gas, and I think the reason for this is that it somehow loses the extra energy through entropy, although what actually happens isn't clear for me.

Although I don't wish to spoil anything, the spectacular fountain effect is less spectacular if you have sugar in either the Mentos or the Diet Coke.  My hypothesis to explain this is that dissolved sugar thickens the liquid and makes it heavier, so the energy from the bubbles comes out more slowly and can't lift the fountain as high.  Possible ways of testing this would be to weigh a bottle of ordinary Coke and a bottle of Diet Coke or to see if the lower fountain from the sugary Coke lasts longer than the higher fountain from the Diet Coke.  That's an opportunity to draw a line graph of course.

I have had a go at trying to make the "perfect" mix for this process, although missing out the aspartame.  This involved powdered calcium carbonate, citric acid crystals and gum tragacanth.  The last ingredient is supposed to be the "Mentos", which are largely made of gum Arabic.  I didn't use gum Arabic at the time because I was boycotting it for ethical reasons (at the time most gum Arabic sales were used to fund "terrorist" activity).  The idea was to mix the calcium carbonate and citric acid together before dumping them in water with the powdered gum tragacanth.  I was doing this at the request of someone else with whom I then lost touch, and the purpose was not to achieve the fountain effect, so I didn't go any further with the project.  I have also made my own cola, incidentally.

That brings me back to the ingredients lists:

To me, the Diet Coke ingredient list is at the "so bad, it's good" level because every single ingredient in it, including sometimes even the water, is a bad thing to consume!  It's actually genuinely impressive how bad they've managed to make it.  Phosphoric acid interests me because it's an inorganic acid:

This has the formula H3PO4, so it contains neither carbon nor chains or rings of atoms, which is unusual for an acid used in food or drink.  This is the ingredient famous for dissolving teeth left overnight in Coke, and if you use a strip of litmus paper on Coke it will show you that it's unusually acidic considering that it doesn't taste sour.  In my home made cola, I used lime juice, being the richest easily available natural source of citric acid, or I could've used citric acid itself.

Caramel is burnt sugar, whose safety has also been called into question.  In my cola, I replace it with muscovado sugar, which produces a paler-looking but still brown drink.

The sweeteners are usually where the arguments begin.  Acesulfame K is just uncontroversially harmful.  Aspartame is also very harmful but the allegation that it's harmful often sparks resistance.  Like many other artificial sweeteners and colours, aspartame is also used in medicines.  This is the reason the list says "Contains a source of phenylalanine" at the end, because there is a genetic condition called PKU or phenylketonuria where the consumption of significant quantities of the amino acid phenylalanine causes brain damage.  This by itself doesn't mean aspartame is any more dangerous than peanuts would be to someone who is not sensitive in that particular way.  There's a condition where fructose causes brain damage as well, so if the same thought was applied there it would mean everyone should avoid fruit.  That's not how things work.

Having said that, I would repeat that there is no doubt in my mind that aspartame is extremely harmful.

I will now explain why I don't think it's anyone's fault that it's turned out to be harmful!

Here's a model of an aspartame molecule:

Aspartame is made from two amino acids joined together by a peptide bond.  Amino acids are small molecules which are joined together to make up proteins, which are the main substances living things are made of along with water and carbohydrates.  When you eat protein, say in the form of tofu, egg white or meat, your digestive system has to deal with long chains of amino acids of all sorts which it has enzymes, which are also proteins, uncoupling and separating, breaking the same peptide bonds which are joining together the two amino acids from which aspartame is made, namely aspartic acid and phenylalanine.  Since there are all sorts of amino acids joined together in protein which we all eat every day, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that aspartame should be dangerous on that basis.  It is utterly, completely, 100% forgiveable that Monsanto, when they started to market aspartame as a sweetener, regardless of the opinion that they are evil (an opinion which I share by the way), thought it was safe.  The theory behind how the digestive system and biochemistry work would also support the idea that it is completely safe.  However, my empirical experience demonstrates that it isn't.

I'm going to quote three incidents.  I have many more in mind, but I have issues with patient confidentiality so I am only going to mention the ones which I have permission to quote.

A child has a constant wheeze and a relatively low peak flow.  There is a positive family history of asthma.  He never consumes aspartame and he has never had an asthma attack.  Unknown to anyone, he consumes a drink with added aspartame and experiences an asthma attack.

A middle-aged patient (given that this is a home ed blog I just want to point out that I am tempted to the point of torture to reveal their name but of course patient confidentiality is utterly sacrosanct, so I'm just going to drop this hint and leave it at that) suffers constant migraines with a cyclical pattern.  Their diet and lifestyle is utterly immaculate - I mean, they are utterly perfect, completely beyond any improvement - with one exception, which is that they drink a lot of Diet Coke.  Discussions about this fact do not persuade her to give it up, but interestingly there are all sorts of rationalisations about why it's okay to drink it.  Her migraines continue.  When she finally does give it up, her migraines stop too, immediately, and she hasn't had one since.

I am offered a cup of coffee sweetened with what I think is fructose.  Other than my gender dysphoria, I am an incredibly healthy person.  I don't know anyone who is as healthy as me.  Five minutes after drinking the coffee, I feel very dizzy and am unable to think clearly, then I almost lose consciousness.  I later find that the coffee was sweetened with aspartame.  I have never consumed aspartame on any other occasion.

These three incidents in my experience are enough to convince me that aspartame is unhealthy.  I'm aware of the research regarding ethanol and the idea that it causes brain tumours and also seizures.  I am not, however, basing my opinion on any of that.  Moreover, there is no reason in the world, so far as I can see, that its composition should make it dangerous to most people.  It's just two essential amino acids joined together in an equally harmless manner.  Nonetheless, it really does seem to be dangerous, and I don't know why.  However, it does occur to me that sweet substances in general are often harmful, for instance lead and beryllium compounds and antifreeze, so I would sometimes interpret a sweet taste as a danger signal.

The sweeteners in the Mentos, incidentally, are mannitol, sucralose and maltose, so far as I can see.  I'm not a massive fan of sucralose because I don't like organic compounds with chlorine groups, but apart from that the sweeteners concerned are utterly innocuous.

Right, that's it for now and I shall forthwith skip gaily down the shop for a packet of xylitol!