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Archive for August, 2008


Monday, August 25th, 2008

"I Shop Therefore I Am" by Barbara Kruger

“I am always telling people that our century is very important historically for the planet. There is a big competition between world peace and world war, between the force of mind and the force of materialism, between democracy and totalitarianism. And now within this century, the force of peace is gaining the upper hand. Still, of course, the material force is very strong, but there is a kind of dissatisfaction about materialism and a realization or feeling that something is missing.”
Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Back on the word meanings again. I do love how so much of what seems to be crying out for our attention is hiding in plain sight, or should I say lurking in plain hearing – in the everyday colloquialisms of the language that we let trip off our tongues without a second thought. This time it’s stuff.

Is it any accident just how eloquently the juxtaposition of the myriad colloquial meanings of the word (especially in British English) expresses the fact that stuffing ourselves has got us – not to mention the planet – well and truly stuffed? The sterner stuff that keeps us on the stuff-creating treadmill is ultimately just stuff and nonsense. We’re stuffed up with stuff. Time we told it to get stuffed. Is it any accident either that our newest coolest word for stuff – stuffage – seems to hint at a concept that’s passed its sell-by date?

I’ve just been reading Jeffrey Kaplan’s article The Gospel of Consumption which paints a disturbingly clear picture of the evolution of our presernt situation, and of how a more sensible, humane and human alternative was deliberately subverted. As one commenter put it,

“It is a strange experience to realize (again and again and again) that our society’s misfortunes can be attributed to the greed of a few and how far-reaching a handful of events, conversations, meetings, etc. can be in establishing a widespread, mostly-unquestioned paradigm. Kudos to the author for presenting this information in an approachable manner that will hopefully encourage a few of us hamsters to question the wheel and, perhaps, begin devising a way to step outside of the cage.”

And to go with the article, here’s some essential viewing (click on the image or here):

The Story of Stuff

As the blurb says,

“The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something, it’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever. “

This sort of stuff is the stuff of real progress.

World wide web

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

“I’m always taken by how deeply women like to dig in the earth. They plant bulbs for the spring. They poke blackened fingers into mucky soil, transplanting sharp-smelling tomato plants. I think they are digging down to the two-million-year-old woman. They are looking for her toes and her paws. They want her for a present to themselves, for with her they feel of a piece and at peace.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés

One of the reasons this blog was so neglected this Spring was because I was spending a lot of time outside shovelling somewhere in the region of 7 tons of topsoil and manure into 2 new raised beds and a load of old car tyres, and planting them with vegetable seeds and seedlings. The desire to grow our own food (or as much of it as we can) became irresistible; not just for the process of growing, which is a miraculous and deeply satisfying thing, but for the knowledge that vegetables grown with love in soil you’ve carefully nurtured to be as fertile and free as possible of pollutants, herbicides and pesticides seem to give even more back in pleasure, taste and nourishment than you’ve put into them.

And despite all the difficulties of this growing season – the lateness of it, the relentless rain and slugs, the barely warm enough soil, the 21-hour days around the summer solstice that bring everything on to bolt, the occasional depredations by the free-range rabbit and a herd of cows staging a mass breakout – the delight in the garden and its produce hasn’t diminished one bit.

Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine the disappointment suffered by gardeners up and down the UK this year when their newly-planted potatoes, beans, tomatoes started to grow with leaves that curled inward like distorted spoons, growing tips tightly curled up liike fern fronds, and flowers and fruit that failed to form. People imagined it was something they’d done wrong, or some disease their plants had acquired, until – thanks entirely to allotment growers’ and gardeners’ discussion forums on the internet – they learned that the problem was widespread, and seemed to be connected with the manure people had faithfully dug into their plots earlier in the year. Deformed plants were sent away for analysis, and were found to contain traces of a hormonal herbicide, aminopyralid, manufactured by Dow AgroSciences, which was being released from the rotting hay and straw in the manure.

Aminopyralid damage at Green Lane allotments

Aminopyralid damage to potato plants at Green Lane allotments, one of the sites to have done most to define and expose this problem.

Many suppliers of manure hadn’t been aware of its presence, so had supplied their product in good faith. Straw, hay and silage bought in for winter feed and bedding didn’t come with a warning that it had previously been sprayed with this herbicide. Most farmers assume the herbicides they use will degrade quickly. Most (so we’re told) do. Aminopyralid, and its precursor clopyralid, also manufactured by Dow, do not.

Evidently the problem isn’t new, though the scale of its effects – in the UK at least – appear unprecedented. The herbicides are used to control the growth of broad-leaved plants like docks and thistles in grassland and pasture. Grasses are unaffected by the chemical, but it’s taken up and incorporated into the lignin, the woody tissue in the plant. There it remains, until released by decomposition.

As an Ohio State University fact sheet explains:

“The problem is that, unlike most pesticides, clopyralid is very persistent in composts and manures and is largely unaffected by the composting process. Most plants are not damaged by clopyralid, even at rates used on lawns and agricultural crops. However, plants in the bean family (Leguminosae), the potato/tomato family (Solonaceae), and the sunflower family (Compositae) are very sensitive to this herbicide. It can stunt tomato, clover, lettuce, pea, lentil, sunflower, pepper, and bean plants at levels in compost as low as 10 parts per BILLION! Since the level of clopyralid on grass the day of application is 10,000 to 50,000 ppb, even a small amount of contaminated material entering a composting facility or directly applied to sensitive crops can cause major problems.”

(You’d think Ohio State’s Departments of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and Horticulture and Crop Science would have known how to spell Solanaceae, but hey ho …)

This is not just disappointing to many gardeners, but devastating. It seems cruelly ironic that this herbicide should be particularly pervasive in compost and manure, the two staples of organic cultivation. This has further implications too. If herbicide residues are found on organic farms, it can lead to a loss of organic certification for several years, even though there is presently no requirement for organic farms to provide bedding from organic sources.

Effects of aminopyralid aren’t limited to the 3 plant families listed as susceptible to clopyralid above either. There have been several reports of damage to plants of the Rosaceae (strawberries, raspberries, roses) and Ranunculaceae (delphiniums).

As a result of growing public outcry, UK authorities have imposed a hasty, but temporary, suspension on the sale of products containing aminopyralid – there is an online petition calling for a complete ban – but ‘experts’ estimate that ground fertilised with contaminated manure will take 2-3 years to return to usefulness. The manure itself may take far longer to break down. Much of what has been used in gardens this year is already over a year old.

Problems have even been reported growing tomatoes in gro-bags sold as ‘organic’. Some gardeners report problems with manure sourced from organic farms, showing that even the most concerned and vigilant amongst us aren’t immune from contamination. The inter-relatedness and interdependence of our communities and our use of the land make its spread inevitable and uncontrollable, much as the spread of GM crops can’t be limited to the fields in which they grow..

Most commentary on the subject seems restricted to the immediate and personal concerns of each individual commentator, but as ‘Marti’ wrote:

“This may seem a small point, but if the public think it is only the odd bag of manure that is contaminated, or that stables are being irresponsible or whatever, we are missing the point. This is not a case of a “bad batch”. This is a case of a chemical company marketing a product that is so potent, and so long-lasting, that it has enormous consequences straight down the supply line for an indefinite amount of time.”

Leaving aside for a minute the unremittingly anthropocentric perspective of all the commentary I’ve read on the subject, it also shows, yet again, the extent to which linear thinking is incongruent with the processes of the natural world. The very obvious impact of a powerful herbicide on the plant it’s designed to eradicate is limited to that impact only in the realms of our imaginations – just like drugs and their ‘side effects’ – while all the while its ramifications are rippling out though the web of life, unseen until once again its unpredicted effects cross our field of vision and we are startled out of our somnolent one-track minds to confront a reality of unity and interconnectedness in which whatever we do to a small part, we do to the whole.

Just like the whole nitrate fertiliser question.

Oh hell. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Just turn over and go back to sleep.

“The notion that all these fragments is separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion. Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today. Thus, as is now well known, this way of life has brought about pollution, destruction of the balance of nature, over-population, world-wide economic and political disorder and the creation of an overall environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most of the people who live in it. Individually there has developed a widespread feeling of helplessness and despair, in the face of what seems to be an overwhelming mass of disparate social forces, going beyond the control and even the comprehension of the human beings who are caught up in it.”
David Bohm

Expecto expectare experitus

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less.”
Nicholas Butler

OK. Apologies to the Latin experts out there. I’m not one, as must be obvious, but hopefully my pidgin Latin roughly conveys its intended sense, which is to see beyond conditioning, “expel what is expected through experience” (though the grammar probably puts it more in the realm of “my postilion has been struck by lightning”).

I was thinking about last week’s post and this business of living mindfully rather than relying on autopilot: of the distinction between expectations/conditioning/assumptions/”expertise” and reality, how expectations are infused with projections, and the expectations and assumptions we have in respect of various man-made “systems”, whether mechanical, administrative or conceptual. I couldn’t help noticing how close the Latin expectare (“await, hope”) is to expectore (“expel from the mind, literally, get it off your chest”) despite the two words being of different derivation (ex- “out” + spectare “to look” vs ex- “out” + pectus “breast”), and how the word expert comes from ex- “out” + peritus “tested, experienced”.

This was all brought together quite eloquently this week when we went to renew a conventional medication prescription. When we left the hospital last month, we were supplied with a form with full instructions for what should be repeated and for how long, and I took this in to the local medical practice on Monday as it normally takes 3 days for them to process repeat prescriptions.

First off, the medications weren’t waiting for us at the pharmacy as we’d been assured they would be. So we went up to the practice where they couldn’t figure out why this had happened, but printed out a prescription for us to take back to the pharmacy to get filled out on the spot.

As we were getting back into the car, I thought I’d better just check it over. I even felt slightly churlish doing so. Aye well. But as well I did. One of the medications prescribed wasn’t what had been specified on the hospital form. So back we went again. They checked it (this took the combined energies of 3 receptionists) and said the doctor had entered it on the database that way. They surmised this must have been because there wasn’t a generally available medication complying with the dosage specifications – the hospital pharmacy must have supplied us with one they’d made up themselves – so he’d chosen the nearest thing he could find that could deliver the same amount of active ingredient.

This all made perfect sense. The only thing was, the consultant had written very clearly, in block capitals in the margin of the form, the trade name of the tablets to prescribe. They’re widely used for a common condition. Even if the doctor wouldn’t necessarily expect this medication to be prescribed in this circumstance, the instructions were perfectly clear. Even though the receptionists accepted the doctor’s expertise and had previous experienceof instances where the hospital pharmacy had made up their own medications, the instructions were perfectly clear. I asked to see the form and pointed out the instruction to them. Once they’d looked at what was written next to my fingertip, everything was straightforward.

Armed with new instructions, we went back to the pharmacy where they filled out the prescription. It wasn’t until I got home that I looked at the bottles and saw that, contrary to the form’s instruction to renew the prescription for 2 weeks only, they’d provided 2 months’ worth of one medication and only 11 days’ worth of the other.

If that many mistakes can occur with a single form that a doctor, 3 medical receptionists and a pharmacist – all very nice and I’m sure generally competent people – had all failed to read properly, it really makes you wonder how many are made on a daily basis and never picked up. If I, as the only “non-expert” in the process, could read it without a problem, it surely couldn’t have been that difficult to decipher?

“The trouble with specialists is that they tend to think in grooves.”
Elaine Morgan

But there you go. Systems, all systems, develop their own circular logic; their conditioning, their expectations, their assumptions. Can we trust their experts to pragmatically accommodate anything that falls slightly outside their expectations? It seems not. Not least because it’s self-evident that the greater the level of “expertise”, the deeper the groove being followed.

This isn’t to say that experience isn’t valuable, and repeated experience more so. It’s how we learn, how we become proficient, expert. You wouldn’t get your bicycle fixed by someone who’d never seen one before. Repeated experience, predictability, is the basis of the vast majority of our science and technology. In many areas it’s even become the ultimate arbiter of what’s considered ‘real’ and what isn’t. But what this perspective turns a blind eye to is the domain of the unique and individual, the unpredictable, the chaotic, which is as equally inherent in any uncontrolled situation as that which is predictable. This constantly stares us in the face, yet it’s our very “expertise” – often taken as an indicator of intelligence – which blinds us to it until someone comes along and points it out.

“If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong.”
Arthur C Clarke

This has considerable implications for the debate surrounding (so-called) evidence-based medicine and the efficacy of CAM therapies. While this may seem a very superficial example of conditioned thinking (and straightforward human error) which is perhaps less relevant to serious subjects that have been examined more closely and in greater depth, closer scrutiny of the debate shows no less prevalence of rigid expectations, inability to see the obvious, circular logic and erroneous supposition.

“Experts built the Titanic; amateurs built the Ark.”

Homeopathic database updates

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

Natural History Museum's Plant Names in Homeopathy database

Dr Vilma Bharatan, a Research Associate in the Department of Botany at London’s Natural History Museum, has been working for a number of years on a database of plant/funghal names in homeopathy, translating them to their modern equivalents. Her work was published in book form in 2002, and the updated and expanded database became available online, with the addition of images, in October 2007. The database is freely accessible and searchable.

A further 1,500 images have recently been uploaded.

From the site:

“The homeopathy database is a standard reference system for homeopathic practitioners, and other users of plant remedies. It reconciles the old homeopathic codes with the current botanical code. The information is based on long established remedies in the Homeopathic Materiae Medicae that are now revised and updated and the online access means it can be maintained and updated easily in line with current concepts of botanical nomenclature.”

This valuable resource deserves widespread support, particularly given current attitudes towards homeopathy in the UK media.


Saturday, August 9th, 2008

“The third level of suffering is the most significant – the pervasive suffering of conditioning. This refers to the very fact of our unenlightened existence, the fact that we are ruled by negative emotions and their underlying root cause, namely our own fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. Buddhism asserts that as long as we are under the control of this fundamental ignorance, we are suffering; this unenlightened existence is suffering by its very nature.”
Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Do you have one of these satnav thingys in your car? I don’t, but I recently had the opportunity to travel in a car that did. Some visiting American friends had a rental Mercedes with a Garmin nüvi 350 provided as part of the package.

Garmin nüvi 350

There’s no doubt it’s an ingenious device, and the fact that it can pinpoint your position in seconds to within 30 feet (10 metres) from 12,500 miles (20,000km) up in space is more than merely cool. After a while of studying it, I got to grudgingly admitting that the thing was kind of useful for those situations where you find yourself in unfamiliar territory without an able navigator with a halfway decent map sitting in the passenger seat.

Grudgingly, because I like to know where I’m going, and if I don’t, I prefer to figure it out using my own resources rather than relying on a machine to do it for me. I’ve got a fairly decent inbuilt compass and photographic recall of maps and it’s generally got me by so far. I wouldn’t want all that to atrophy through disuse. Somehow, abrogating responsibility in this way feels like some kind of cop-out. It’s that whole response-ability thing again. It seems too easy to slip into; to become brainlessly reliant on it to the extent of making ludicrously insane errors because “that’s what the GPS said I should do”. After all, look what’s happened in medicine with the growing reliance on machines to diagnose problems and the simultaneous devaluing of human diagnostic instinct and intuition. “Computer says no …”

I’m wary of disconnecting myself from the immediacy of the road I’m driving and getting lost in a world of virtual reality. But wait. Aren’t I already using a machine rather than my own resources? A machine which has disconnected me from the immediacy of the road I could be walking? But which has conferred the considerable advantage of allowing me to get from A to B 10 to 20 times faster? Haven’t I already happily handed over the function of carrying around a vast repository of fascinating facts to my laptop and its WiFi connection? Which has given me instant access to a gazillion times more fascinating facts while freeing up resources to connect it all in more interesting ways? And isn’t the road I’m driving ultimately no less of a virtual reality than the one depicted on the Garmin’s screen?

What’s wrong here isn’t the GPS, but my attitude to it. I need to get my thinking sorted in relation to conditioning and awareness. It’s not a case of either/or (why is it that our unthinking thinking seems to automatically fall into such stark polarity?), but the efficient and intelligent application of both. Unthinking reliance on conditioned response isn’t unique to the human-IT interface – as Josef Cene could no doubt have told you from his seat in the middle of the Kennet and Avon canal – and we’d be an unredeemingly sad, sorry, humourless species if it was. It’s a potential pratfall in relation to all our patterning and programming, which is itself a fundamental biological imperative exhibited by all life forms in some way or another. But the conditioned response isn’t the problem (that seems a wonderfully efficient device of nature’s to maximise limited intelligence resources). The problem is diverting too much of those limited resources elsewhere and relying on autopilot to take us through situations where some modicum of attentive intelligence is called for. Though if we solved that problem, then we wouldn’t have an awful lot left to laugh at …

GPS-related navigation error

The driver of a £96k Mercedes SL500 had a lucky escape after her satnav directed her down a winding track and straight into the River Sence in Sheepy Magna, Leicestershire.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
C G Jung

Another aspect to this man-and-machine-team thing surfaced when I saw the reactions of my fellow passengers to the Garmin’s voiced instructions. ‘Ms Nüvi’, as ‘she’ was christened, seemed to be deeply irritating. Was it something to do with the subliminal effect of ‘her’ English accent on American sensibilities? Or something far more universal, as Joel Garreau wrote in a recent Washington Post piece?

“Personal GPS-based navigation devices in cars – the ones that say “In 500 feet turn left” – are far and away the most abundant machines smart enough to talk to us and sometimes listen. Nonetheless, humans continue to perceive them as surly, dumb or frantic – especially when the bot realizes you think you’re smarter than it is.”

Garreau goes on to write about several of the various developments under way to imbue navigation systems with some simulacrum of ‘personality’ in an attempt to make them more context-responsive and user-friendly.

“Given how much people hated their current navbots – it surprised no one when Mercedes owners christened their Teutonic dominatrixes “Helga” – the innovators viewed allowing the owner to customize the personality of this device as a must. The reverse would also make sense. The device should be able to shape itself to the owner, learning not to be too chatty before the human’s first cup of coffee – detecting stress or other psychological conditions in the voice of the driver.

“These seers believed if they worked hard enough, such devices would start to become common in the 2010 model year. They were evangelistic about how much you’d like the result, especially the first time it said, “I can tell from the direction we’re going and the reports I’m getting from up ahead that there’s no way we’re going to be able to pick up your daughter at her school on time. Would you like me to call her and tell her we’ll be 17 minutes late?”

“There was no name for this device. The designers called it simply “The Entity.””

This all seems completely back to front and inside out to me. By their very natures, machines are inflexible and human beings aren’t. What machine could ever accommodate the limitless variety of preferences and situations human beings put themselves in? The computing power of such a navbot would require the resources of a small power station to run and the omniscience of a minor deity. No wonder the designers called it “The Entity”. Yet this is something a human being can do on no more than a bowl of salad and a glass of water. Why are we expending such vast amounts of energy and effort in working against the nature of things? It’s our own nature that’s the one of almost limitless flexibility, not the machine’s. The only inflexibility is in our attitudes and perceptions which, no matter how fixed, can change in an instant given the right circumstances.

Isn’t it far more sensible and efficient to let both human and machine operate according to their intrinsic natures? It’s about teamwork. It’s about responsibility and response-ability. If your navbot drives you nuts, then what does that tell you about you? It’s not the machine that has the problem, so it’s not the machine’s software issue. The machine is just the mirror here. It’s you that needs reprogramming.

So will I get me a Garmin? Probably not. I don’t make enough trips to places I don’t know to justify the expense. And though I’m grateful to it for reflecting back to me those issues around trust and control I need to work on, part of that is about leaving the door open to getting lost once in a while; to the accidental opportunities that have a way of allowing the unexpected, the awesome, the amazing, the side-splittingly humorous, and the downright miraculous into life. And it’s all surprisingly effortless.

“If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Thanks to the current insanity revolving around homeopathy in this country, in both media and blogosphere, it's become necessary to insult your intelligence by explicitly drawing your attention to the obvious fact that any views or advice in this weblog/website are, unless stated otherwise, the opinions of the author alone and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you choose to take anything from here that might be construed as advice, you do so entirely under your own recognisance and responsibility.

smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard