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We have restrained ourselves from commenting overmuch on the Brett Kavanaugh matter for one simple reason.

From a distance, one simply cannot, with any real confidence, parse the facts of the matter.

It also raises so many fundamental questions as to spin the mind.

The most important of these are: how does the system effectively adjudicate matters that invariably happened out of the sight of corroborating witnesses?

And how does the system balance the concept of presuming a woman’s testimony of sexual assault to be valid and worthy of the deepest and most serious consideration, with the concept of “innocent until proven guilty by a jury of one’s peers” – a concept so ingrained in our own world view that is assuredly deserves the epithet “fundamental”.

The short answer to these worrysome questions is that ultimately – and unsatisfactorily – the “facts” of any given matter will often come down to opinion. Opinion about the credibility of each party to the dispute.

And opinion, of course, whilst inevitably part of our decision-making process, is simply made up of the accumulated life experiences we have had, and the opinions imprinted upon us by others at some time or other, and although it is a key decision-making tool for all of us, in no way can it reliably be called empirical. Nevertheless, it is often all we really have.

In these things, therefore, we often rely on our gut instincts. Our “feel” for the situation. Indeed, sans identifiable facts we fall back on aphorisms and folk wisdom. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Recent research into “mob decisions” or the “wisdom of crowds” seems to tell us that the collective wisdom of large groups of people is more often likely to be right than wrong, born of some sort of collective hive mind experience that is not yet clearly understood, although much conjectured upon.

One such folk aphorism is “there’s no smoke without fire”.

This is the simple belief that when a quantity of controversy is in the air, something genuine must be behind it. And it is, indeed, a reliable indicator, to some extent. Over and over again investigations based on the appearance of smoke do, indeed, eventually reveal the fire behind it. The problem is that it also often amounts to nothing at all. Smoke can be manufactured by interested or malign parties, nowadays more easily than ever, to the extent that leads people to assume “it must be so”. This effect is magnified hundreds of thousands of times in a world where social media endlessly repeats “facts” that are not, in any empirical sense, facts at all. In a sense this is by no means solely a modern affair. For example the infamous Dreyfus affair from 1894 to 1906 divided France deeply and lastingly into two opposing camps: the pro-Army, mostly Catholic “anti-Dreyfusards” and the anti-clerical, pro-republican Dreyfusards. It embittered French politics and encouraged radicalisation on both sides for decades. But today, the effect is infinitely more powerful, and therefore infinitely more caution is indicated.

The Wikipedia article on Wisdom of Crowds is well worth reading. It reveals the pluses and minuses of this phenomenon. Ironically, one real danger is the desire to feel “connected”, leaving us at the mercy of our own emotions, urgently vacuuming up opinions and “facts” that confirm our world view. This goes way beyond mere confirmation bias, which is a well-understood phenomenon. It goes to what we actually believe to be happening around us. It affects our empirical view of the world. Our opinions become our reality. Doubt or rationality become dangerous to our mental well-being.

So what has the Kavanaugh case revealed about our ability to perceive truth? We would argue the following:

1. Whilst many men and women (and especially women) have become swept up in the outrage surrounding the accusations, many have also seen the entire matter as a political hit job on a decent man, or sought to downplay the matter “even if it is true”. Which way the opinion falls may depend on our personal backgrounds, or how we perceived the demeanour of the central characters.

2. U.S. President Donald Trump said he is “100 percent” certain that Christine Blasey Ford named the wrong person when she accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in testimony during his Supreme Court nomination hearings.

Yet Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she was “100 percent” certain it was Kavanaugh who sexually assaulted her in the upstairs bedroom of a home in a wealthy Washington suburb in 1982 when both of them were teenagers. Her testimony before the committee was steady, largely unemotional, circumspect and appeared credible. And for many, that testimony dredged up painful memories of their own experiences of sexual violence, that had often been privately endured for years. Ford’s manifest bravery in the face of those who were at times both hostile and disbelieving also empowered survivors; they felt that they were no longer alone and that they too had a voice. Many felt the urge to take action, both in support of those who had been affected but also to change societal attitudes to sexual harassment.

3. In stark contrast, the Judge’s testimony was at turn tragic, angry, (bordering on fury), and sometimes overtly political and partisan. If he was an innocent man wronged then his emotions could quite clearly be understood. If he was a guilty man found out, then it appeared he was erecting an ever-growing smokescreen of emotive blather, to obscure any matters of fact. Which it was will depend entirely on the pre-held opinions one brings to watching his testimony. For many on the right it was understandable, credible and even long overdue. A warrior of conservatism fighting back for his reputation and his life against a conspiracy involving the Democratic Party, left wing media and femi-nazi activism. For many on the left his speech epitomised male privilege and a machismo-drenched “winner takes all” mentality which betokened no opposition. The left’s response to the entire brouhaha is well laid out here.

So what can we conclude from this riveting but sorry matter?

For all that the President tries to spin it one way, the short story is that the Senate have now said they believe Ford to have been untruthful, whether mistakenly or deliberately.

This must inevitably be a huge psychological blow to women everywhere who may delay reporting sexual assault for all sorts of very good and well-understood reasons. At the very least, concerted efforts must be made to encourage women to speak up against sexual violence perpetrated against them, whenever it was. If the net outcome of this matter is that fewer women will seek redress, that would be a dolorous outcome indeed.

The new Justice of the Supreme Court may have revealed himself to be temperamentally unsuited to such a senior role, no matter the guilt or otherwise of his case, nor the level of his legal acumen, which is by all accounts very high. At least one former Supreme Court Justice and 2,400 law professors believe this to be the case. It may be that his intemperate testimony will haunt him even longer than the facts or otherwise of the accusations against him.

In any civilised society, there must surely be a thorough legal investigation into the two other complainants against the Judge, if only to dismiss their accusations. To leave their matters swinging in the breeze is merely to prolong the saga. Indeed, should the Judge himself not call for them to be investigated, to clear the air, even though he has publicly rejected them? And if he does not, why not? What does that say, if anything? And what if those people – or Ford herself, indeed – bring a civil case against the Judge? How would that affect his ability to carry out his role?

Last but by no means least, the case has shown the American political system, and society in general, to be in an even more toxic state than everyone already knew it to be, if such a thing were possible.

American today looks more than ever like it did in the war-fuelled and conflicted era of 1968 and its surrounds. People simply seem unable to listen to one another, or to debate politely. They choose what to believe based on their political allegiance and not a careful review of known facts. In the world’s most significant liberal democracy, that is a matter of active danger, as people may give up on the model altogether in sheer frustration. Indeed, there are those that argue that the political classes are already preparing to do exactly that. A confluence of power and money is taking place which threatens to ride roughshod over institutions and process – and which is utterly uninterested in pesky little matters such as facts.

An unhappy time, in short.

You also deserve, Dear Reader, to know what we think.

In our view, the performance of the Judge in cross-questioning revealed him to be unfit to hold the highest level of judicial appointment in America, perhaps in the world, in its impact. Not because of his opinions – he’s entitled to those – but because of of how he chose to express them. But one can make excuses for his brutalistic performance, call it a one off, or argue we all might fail when under such scrutiny. All of which might be true. Or might not.

So to make our own judgement, fraught with incapacity and uncertainty, we will rely on one last piece of folk-wisdom, using an aphorism popular in our home of Australia.

When it seems impossible to be certain on the rights and wrongs of any given matter, ask yourself, “Does it pass the sniff test?”

Like a piece of meat lifted to quivering nostrils, does it “smell” fresh or tainted?

And to our nose, the Kavanaugh matter simply does not pass the sniff test.

But then again, we might be wrong.

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A grieving NSW mother, whose teenage daughter was sent home from hospital a day before she died from meningococcal, has warned others to be aware of the potentially deadly symptoms.

Central Coast student Mischelle Rhodes, 19, came down with a fever last Tuesday, but was sent home from hospital with painkillers and died the next day.

“The hospital did some blood tests, gave her Nurofen, gave her Panadol and sent her home,” the student’s mother Anjini Rhodes said.

“They said she was okay.”

A Central Coast mother is grieving after her teenage daughter Mischelle Rhodes, 19, died from meningococcal.

Central Coast student Mischelle Rhodes, 19, came down with a fever last Tuesday, but was sent home from hospital with painkillers. Source: 7News

By Wednesday morning, Mischelle was getting worse and began vomiting.

Her mum took her back to Gosford Hospital and by lunchtime there was quick-spreading rash.

“And she told me, ‘Doctors told me I’m going to die’,” Ms Rhodes said. Her organs were indeed failing and Mischelle sadly died that afternoon.

“I thought she was going to be okay… [she was] such a healthy, beautiful girl. I didn’t think this was going to happen,” the grieving mother cried as she described her pain.

“It just took my beautiful girl away so fast.”

A Central Coast mother is grieving after her teenage daughter Mischelle Rhodes, 19, died from meningococcal.

The teen died the next day after a rash quickly spread. Source: Mischelle Rhodes / Facebook

Symptoms to watch for include sudden onset of fever, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light and a blotchy rash.

Her mother issued a warning to parents and others presenting symptoms, saying: “Don’t leave hospital until everything’s been looked at.”

Mischelle is the second meningococcal fatality on the Central Coast in a month, following the death of a 38-year-old woman. But the cases are not linked. There have been 41 meningococcal cases across NSW this year, including three which were fatal.

“It can strike pretty much anybody and at any age,” NSW Health’s Dr Peter Lewis said.

“We see cases at all ages and throughout the year, but this is actually the time of year where we tend to see more cases occurring.”

A free meningococcal vaccine is available for children aged 15 to 19.

Aussies considering a quick break in one of the many plush resorts popping up in Cambodia need to stop and consider whether they want to reward the loathsome Hun Sen regime with their much needed foreign currency. You can read about the case here:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45364695

The savage jailing for six years of elderly Aussie journalist James Ricketson is clearly a nonsensical, Kafkaesque attempt to stifle both journalistic freedom and criticism of the increasingly authoritarian Government.

Cambodia is a country which relies on Australian aid, (somewhere around $80-90 million in the most recent year), has close governmental contact with Australia, and which needs close trade ties with Australia to continue its development from the nightmare of the Pol Pot era.

It’s time the Australian Government stopped pussy-footing around human rights abuses by our near neighbours. Incoming Foreign Minister Marise Payne – no shrinking violet  – has an opportunity to stamp her authority on the position by demanding that Cambodia release Ricketson forthwith.

No ifs, no buts, no diplomatic doublespeak, no procrastination, no face-saving formulas. Now.

For heavens’ sake, Cambodian prosecutors can’t even say who Ricketson was supposed to be spying for.

If you wish to urge Marise Payne to take immediate and effective action, we suggest you email her on:

Email: Senator.Payne@aph.gov.au

Foreign Affairs: Foreign.minister@dfat.gov.au

#Asia #Asean #MarisePayne #Australia #justice

Mission Beach, Far North Queensland, looking over to Dunk Island

A flying visit to Far North Queensland – in this case a wedding at seemingly endless Mission Beach – reminds me powerfully of my childhood visiting the coastal tropical paradise than runs almost the length of the Eastern seaboard of South Africa.

Like South Africa, the bizarre and the wonderful and the otherworldly abound in FNQ. Driving along little country lanes one passes over rickety old bridges covering deep slashes of dark, mysterious water; streams that tumble and cascade through the rainforest to the ocean turning into turgid, broad estuaries where the rainfall and sea mix.

This is not a place to step out of the car. There is hardly a waterway here that is not home to the ubiquitous salt-water crocodile. Slowing down and gazing out of the car window for tell-tale eyes or snouts reminds me powerfully of driving around African game reserves spotting rhinos amongst the thorn trees and bushes. You don’t get out of the car there, either, without the benefit of a guide and good running shoes. Here neither would help you much if you ventured incautiously into the creek, looking for some barramundi to BBQ for dinner, nestling beneath the waterside vegetation. Mr and Mrs Croc can make about 30mph through the water, and you’re easier to catch than a barra.

Better to stick to the beach, except swimming is unwise, even out of stinger season. The waters hereabouts are stocked with jellyfish of all kinds. Some will give you a nasty sting that’s reasonably easily treated with vinegar, or if none is to hand, urinating on the wound. The well-known “bluebottle” is one such – a blob of nastiness followed by a seemingly endless strand of stinging tail that wraps round your leg all too easily. But that’s just a nasty annoyance. Others, such as the virtually unspottable irukandji, will kill you, if the people with you don’t know that when you stop breathing you’re not yet dead, and if they perform mouth-to-mouth you’ll wake up again. But even if they are so briefed, who wants to find out how good their memory is? About a centimetre across at the biggest, their tendrils can be up to a metre in length. Their sting – they fire little barbs into you just to make sure – is 100 times more potent than a cobra and 1000 times more potent than a tarantulas. And that’s just the irukandji. There are others.

Back to the resort pool after a nice walk on the beach, then.

Mind you, while we’re discussing tarantulas, when walking after dark it’s wise to avoid the spiders webs that end up strung across paths in what seems like no time flat, especially as, yes, most of the spiders round here will give you a nasty suck. Luckily we spotted one substantial specimen crawling on our arm yesterday and flicked it off as it reared up to go for a nibble. We were not stung, but a blood pressure count taken up to an hour afterwards would have seen us whisked off to ER quick smart.

There are actually more killer sharks down south than there are up here, but they’re around. Mind you, their threat (which really is not very great, if you look at the stats) seems trivial when compared to the crocs. We were told that just a few days before our arrival a 4.2 metre specimen was spotted patrolling up and down the beach – not lurking in his estuary where he was meant to be. Backwards and forwards, with a hungry look in his eye.

Why are the crocs so numerous? Well, they’re protected, for one thing. But the real answer is easy. Lots of fish to eat. Lots and lots of fish. These waters are swarming with tasty comestibles for croc and man alike, which is why fishing would have to be pretty much the number 1 leisure activity in these parts, after drinking cold beer – and, of course, no one said you can’t drink beer and fish simultaneously.

None of the above should deter you from visiting. For one thing, the plant life in the area is worth a visit on its own. Riotous bursts of variegation and colour in endless variety are testament to a growing environment close to that of the Garden of Eden. Hot … damned hot … and very wet. Plants that are mere pot specimens in our home town grow here to above head height. With the blazing tropical sun broken up by the high branches of palm trees and then filtered again by the progressive layers of ferns and other delights, not only is it possible to stay cool, but one can also wander as if in a primordial landscape just metres from civilisation. So long as there are no water courses nearby.

Port St Johns “Second Beach”

As I said, it reminds me powerfully of childhood holidays in Natal and the Transkei/Pondoland. I fell to thinking of one time – we were at a delightful out-of-the-way spot called Second Beach at Port St Johns – and I would have been perhaps 11 – when a local Xhosa boy called Winston (after Winston Churchill) offered his services to our family as a gillie. Essentially, a baiter of hooks, a runner of errands, and a stand-in babysitter for me. Winston was maybe 14 and ineffably cool. Wise beyond his years, always smiling, never fatigued, endlessly obliging. For being permanently available to do whatever was needed, he was rewarded with what was then probably two or three pounds a day – enough for him to live moderately well, although I am sure it went home to his family, and he was gifted the occasional fish, which definitely did.

He seemed to have an almost magical ability to tell us where to cast our lines into the waves to catch the hard-fighting great-eating South African shad, even when there weren’t tell-tale flocks of seabirds diving into the waves to eat the bait fish on which the shad would gorge themselves. Indian shop-keepers – always at the beach before us no matter how early in the pearly dawn light we rose – would walk off the beach muttering “one fish, one fish”, which was code for “Not much around today, man.” But Winston would just stand looking at the water, one leg resting on the knee of the other in perfect balance, until he would point and motion to where he thought there might be fish. He was always right. It was freakish.

Winston saved my life twice that summer. One time, he took his eyes off me for a second when we were playing, (I was playing, he was nursemaiding), and I waded across an estuary to look at a metal sign on an obelisk in the water. As I got there, and started sinking inexorably, I saw that it was a warning against quicksand, in which I was now stuck. Winston swam across the top of the water and grabbed both my hands, pulling me up and out. I was terrified. He just chuckled.

Another time, we were in one of those yellow inflatable oval dinghy things that hang off the back of bigger boats, paddling around in the estuary, doing nothing much. I think I was carelessly dangling a line off the back, which might have stirred up the local fish population a little, as suddenly there was a massive crash on the bank next to us, and vast turbulence in the water. Ignorant, and excited, I went to the side of the boat to see what was what, and was batted back into the middle of the boat by Winston, who then stood there with his paddle raised. “Ingwenya!” he said to me urgently, “Ingwenya!” After a few moments he grabbed both oars and rowed for our lives. I have no doubt that had I leaned over the edge of the boat I would have been crocodile dinner. And Winston would have been in deep shit for having got “little baas” eaten.

When we got back to the holiday hut we were staying in I went and stole two Peter Stuyvestants from my brother’s pack and gave one to Winston, who I had admired smoking the most disgusting bush cheroots imaginable. From the pocket of his ragged shorts, which seemed cavernous enough to hold a seemingly endless cornucopia of useful things, he produced matches and we lit up and strolled to the beach to calm down.

“Ingwenya!” he laughed at me again, and did a little pantomime of a massive jaw closing shut over my head. “Ingwenya!” I assured him I had the point, and tried to convince him I wouldn’t be so stupid as to look over the edge of any boats, ever again. Certainly not in tropical waters. He didn’t understand a word I said, of course, but we just laughed and nodded, him smoking an entire cigarette in two or three huge draughts of smoke, which he blew out of his nose, and which I tried to emulate, but just ended up sneezing with watering eyes.

As I stared into the murky depths of forest and creek today, I caught myself wondering what might have happened to Winston.

Did he end up coughing his life away in the dust-filled gold and diamond mines around Jo’burg?

Did he get swept up in the communal violence that plagued South Africa during the transition to majority rule?

Or did he stay near Port St Johns, baiting hooks and rescuing little pale boys, and now he sits somewhere high on the hills in Transkei, surrounded by his family, and his cows, and watches the ineffable sunsets, and warns his grand-kids to watch out for crocs.

I like to think he does. I hope he has a long and happy old age. I hope he still catches fish. And has plenty of cigarettes.

The “little corporal” Napoleon, standing at about 5 feet 7 inches, was actually taller than most of his compatriots.

According to the National Post, this misconception may have arisen because of the difference between French and British inches at the time. In French measurements, Napoleon was 5 feet 2 inches, but French inches were longer than British ones.

 

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Others believe it all started with a satirical cartoon with Napoleon being held in an British general’s hand. Or is that the King? We’re not sure.

Just another example, we feel, of “history being written by the victors”. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo we suspect Wellington would have become a silly creature of fun with boots up to his arse, and Nelson a bent and hobbled cripple.

This historical oddity, though, raises an interesting question. How many sources for history do we really need if we are to attain a “balanced” view. What weight should be placed on various sources? And what duty do we owe to the living to get it right?

One would suppose very few French people feel especially hard done by because we generally think Napoleon was a short-arse. But let us take, for example, the history of indigenous owners of land since appropriated by Empires various or immigrants: the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, for example. They see the arrival of the British as a murderous, genocidal invasion of lands they had occupied for at least 40,000 years. Our view of the North American first peoples is founded almost entirely on the myth making of 19th century broadsheet writers and comic books, the owners of which had a vested interested in selling the “white man” as a brave and honourable creature, a position gleefully adopted by Hollywood who were selling movies to those white people’s descendants, of course, and not the grandchildren of the noble (and more often ignoble) savages. Blacks in Africa were invariably shown as feckless and ignorant, despite have created civilisations that pre-dated Europe by thousands of years – ditto the Arab world which was apparently entirely composed of wild eyed zealots with flashing knives and not some of the greatest scientists in history, Aztecs and Mayans did little more with their time than cut the hearts out of slaves and toss their bodies down the sides of pyramids despite centuries of learning on astronomy and mathematics that were centuries in advance of the “West”, the Chinese were corrupt satraps despite their progress in civil administration, medicine, art and literature, and so on and so on ad infinitum.

All these civilisations were the victims of “othering”. The process by which we ridicule, marginalise and often slaughter those whom we defeat, and we simply do not concede either honourable or laudable characteristics to the defeated.

So it is perhaps instructional to consider those who are “othered” by the media, politicians, and common opinion in the West today.

The myth-making runs in overtime about, in no particular order, “lazy, venal” South Americans, “disaffected, drug-addled” American people of colour, “dangerous, inhuman, violent” Muslims, (we are sick of pointing out that if Muslims as a group were really violent the West would currently be at war with 1.2 billion of them, and probably losing, but there it is), disorganised and corrupt Italians and Greeks, drunken Irish, endlessly warring Africans, and many more.

Well. It is our birthday, today, Dear Reader. We are getting older. As someone so kindly pointed out in a message to our mobile phone earlier, “your senior years are now really upon you”. Well, yes, they are. So if you will permit me, an observation from the full height of the mountain I have so far climbed.

Whomever we are discussing, and wherever they are in the world, what has struck me most forcefully as I have gone through this life is actually how similar people are. Whoever they are. Wherever they are. No matter what their cultural background.

People everywhere simply want to live in peace. To celebrate family, and have a chance to provide for them. To speak, walk and breathe freely. To live free from fear, and with enough wealth that they don’t fear want, either.

The same things essentially frighten all of us, and the same things usually please us, inspire us, and elevate us.

We are all much more alike than we are unalike.

One of the most educational things today is to observe on social media how a “meme” of something silly, charming, and encouraging can be shared by people of all cultures, all types, all ages, and all sexes, umpteen millions of times. Very often, those memes involve conspicuous acts of kindness. Of gentleness. Every time someone clicks “Share”, they are affirming our common humanity.

If social media has a true purpose, it is perhaps to remind us that what unites us, as a species, is much more than ever divides us.

This is not to argue for a common or enforced blandness. Educator, campaigner and orator Booker T Washington once said, “In all things social we can be as separate as the finger, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”.

That’ll do me. For my birthday present, I’d really like it if you agreed, Dear Reader. Let’s stop “othering”, and be the hand that creates mutual progress.

 

 

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Sitting in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California looking back on his wasted life is Sirhan Sirhan, the aggrieved pro-Palestinian Jordanian who fifty years ago today fatally shot Bobby Kennedy for his support for selling war planes to Israel.

But what he killed that day was not only the wildly popular primary contender for the Democratic nomination for President, but also the post-war “big government” consensus that had held sway in America since the Depression. With Kennedy effectively died the idea that Government had a legitimate role in enabling social cohesion and attacking evils such as poverty and the racial divide.

After his death, the Democrats turned to Hubert Humphrey as a consensus candidate, but the bumbling Humphrey was never going to be a match for the charismatic and experienced Richard Nixon.

That event began a thirty year or more realignment to the right in American politics, which eventually led to a wider realignment around the democratic world, which affected both future Democratic candidates (such as Carter and Clinton) as well as notable Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. By the end of the process the “post war consensus” around enabling government and Keynsian economics was largely broken, and it is not clear yet whether or not it will ever be revived.

Texan political scientist Walter Dean Burnham’s 1970 book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics presents a theory of American political development that focuses on the role of party systems that endure for several decades, only to be disrupted by a “critical election”. Such elections not only hand presidential and congressional power to the non-incumbent political party, but they do so in a dramatic way that repudiates the worn-out ideas of the old party and initiates a new era whose leaders govern on a new set of assumptions, ideologies, and public policies. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are perhaps the clearest examples of critical elections, and scholars have disagreed about how well Burnham’s theories still explain American electoral politics. Others contend that 1968 was a realigning election for Republicans holding the presidency from 1969 to 1977 and again from 1981 to 1993.

Some political scientists, such as Mayhew, are skeptical of the realignment theory altogether, saying there are no long-term patterns: “Electoral politics,” he wrote, “is to an important degree just one thing after another … Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans … It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation … It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end.”

That is in all probability true. “Realignment” elections are probably the result of long-term trends that then coalesce around an individual or event. In this sense, the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK is unquestionably onesuch, in that it can be seen as not so much an enthusiasm for Thatcher personally (for some time after her election in 1979 she actually languished in the polls and could arguably have been defeated in the 1983 election were it not for the Falklands War) but as an enduring and growing response to militant trade unionism that had disrupted the country during the previous Heath and Callaghan premierships.

In this sense, though, it is interesting to debate what type of America we might now see had Robert Kennedy survived and won the election. Would we have seen a rejuvenated consensus around government intervention, led by Kennedy’s personal charisma, and fervour? Or was Kennedy a “man out of time”, a liberal consensus man who belonged ten or twenty years earlier? It is an enticing discussion.

Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in response to the dissent brokered by the civil rights movement thoroughly moved large numbers of older, conservative and male whites (most directly) into the Republican camp. Whether or not Kennedy’s personal appeal and rhetorical flourish would have kept them in the Democrat fold is impossible to say. Republican leaders consciously appealed to many white Southerners’ racial grievances in order to gain their support. Whether or not Kennedy could have “sold” a different narrative is hard to say. The Southern Strategy and its effectiveness certainly annoyed black and other minority voters. In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologised to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a national civil rights organisation, for exploiting racial polarisation to win elections and ignoring the black vote. The very substantial preference for the Democrat ticket currently evidenced by the black population stems in part from this period and there can be little doubt that the election of Donald Trump reresented the most stark division between black and white voters in modern electoral history. Would Kennedy have reduced or prevented that divide? Who knows?

Certainly, many left-leaning leaders at the time felt Kennedy’s loss very keenly and for many Kennedy’s death ended the revival of American liberalism.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 2.31.06 pm“King had prepared us for his death, and after it [MLK’s death] happened, there was no weeping, we immediately started figuring out how we were going to carry on the Poor People’s Campaign,” says former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, one of King’s closest aides.

But that maintenance of effort was scuppered by Kennedy’s death. “That was when I broke down,” says Young. “I think that the rational liberal democratic socialist view of the world, from Franklin Roosevelt all the way to Lyndon Johnson, was really cut short by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.”

Others disagree. “By the end of the 1960s, the forces that were swelling up against the Great Society, which was an extension of the New Deal of the 1930s, were going to defeat whoever the Democrats put up,” says HW Brands, historian and author. “Americans were disillusioned and angered by the violence of the 1960s, and by the failure of the Democratic governments of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to take Vietnam to a successful conclusion.”

Brands notes how also the Civil Rights movement had largely achieved its legislative aims, and so if either Martin Luther King Jr or Robert Kennedy had lived they would have had to battle the great American conundrum of economic inequality and poverty that has thwarted all others.

“That’s a much tougher nut to deal with going off the last 50 years of American politics,” Mr Brands says. “You can repeal laws against blacks, but can you mandate economic equality? Nobody’s figured out how to do it … for a society that is organised economically along capitalist lines.” It’s a fair point.

 

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Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 1.44.58 pm.pngWhat is certain is that the election of Nixon and the general drift to the right that continues to this day resulted in economic policies – an understanding of the economic framework – that are wildly different to what went before … right up to until, perhaps, the election of an innately interventionist Trump administration, with its talk of directly investing in rustbelt industries, trade wars, and all the rest of it – which election can at least in part be squarely laid at the door of voter dis-satisfaction with the actual out-workings of the very “trickle down” economics that the Republicans for a generation have been enthusiastically promoting.

Yet as the result of the Trump revolution, American economic policy is now a curious (and not necessarily sustainable, or necessarily successful) mixture of lowering taxes and increasing spending, of triumphalist nationalism and “America First”, and an apparent rejection of free tradeism. Aided, no doubt, by Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity in some sections of the population, Trump’s election was above all a reaction to the fact that the new consensus, established after Kennedy’s death and pursued by both Democrats and Republicans, hasn’t really “worked”, either.

So it is at least worth speculating exactly what Sirhan Sirhan destroyed that day, 50 years ago. Jeremi Suri, a history professor and author, has commented: “Kennedy … was the last politician who came from a background of Franklin Roosevelt-influenced social welfare policies who could connect with rural voters,” Mr Suri says. “What ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a set of policies of expanding rights, expanding government services and assistance for those in need, and the backlash against that was facilitated by the absence of effective figures like Robert Kennedy.”

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So was Kennedy-ism the last gasp of the liberal consensus, or will we see that consensus revived, at least in part, by a new crop of populist centre-left politicians, in America and around the world, of whom Trump is merely, perhaps, a somewhat confused example?

How do we judge, for example, the huge popularity of a character like Bernie Sanders, a self proclaimed “democratic socialist”, whose economic prescription for America could have been written by any “big Government” thinker from 1926-1966 without anyone finding it in the least unusual or even worthy of much comment?

Was Kennedy’s death merely a pause in left-liberal consensus building, or the end of it?

Time, as always, will tell.

(Some of the quotations in this article previously appeared in a BBC article.)

To get uplifting words of wisdom in your Facebook feed every day, free of charge, just go here https://www.facebook.com/thoughtfortoday/ and click the Like button at the top of the page, where the pink arrow is pointing at it …

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Thought for Today, Day 54 – feel with your heart; remember what’s important.

Helen Keller said: The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

At 19 months old, Keller contracted an unknown illness which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.

Even though blind and deaf, Helen Keller had passed through many obstacles and she learned to live with her disabilities. She learned how to tell which person was walking from the vibrations of their footsteps.

Later in life Keller became the world’s most famous activist for the disabled and a noted campaigner on many other issues.

One meeting she held was reported thus: “a message that will linger long with those fortunate enough to have received it. The wonderful girl who has so brilliantly triumphed over the triple afflictions of blindness, dumbness and deafness, gave a talk with her own lips on “Happiness,” and it will be remembered always as a piece of inspired teaching by those who heard it.

According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others … she imparted that “helping your fellow men were one’s only excuse for being in this world and in the doing of things to help one’s fellows lay the secret of lasting happiness.” She also told of the joys of loving work and accomplishment and the happiness of achievement. Although the entire lecture lasted only a little over an hour, it had a profound impact on the audience.

Now: what were you worrying about again?

#helenkeller #deafness #disability #courage #hope #thoughtfortoday

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Protesters hold protest signs denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin near the Russian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York in 2015. (Reuters)

The really interesting question in the recent poisoning case in the UK is not if the Russian Government is implicated – it looks highly likely (see below) – but why they would perform such an act now.

When trying to understand the context, two factors are key in our view.

Firstly, Russia is in an expansionist phase, constantly testing the resolve of the West to resist it.

Recent examples are many and varied. Russia is firmly in the camp of rogue state in terms of its murderous support of the Assad regime in Syria, as it seeks to expand its influence in the Middle East. It continues to agitate against the Ukraine, maintains a threatening posture against the newly independent Baltic states, and threatens the USA with a “new generation” of nuclear missiles.

Secondly, Putin is up for re-election. He is a populist “strongman”, and that’s why his rule is virtually unchallenged, although factions within the ruling elite in Russia do exist, and jockeying for power in the event of any departure by Putin is constant. In this, Russia has hardly evolved from the days of communist control, or frankly, the Tsars.

Viewed in this light, the murder of a minor spy who has been quietly living in the West for some time – which would be re-reported in Russia, of course – serves two purposes.

It tests the West’s resolve to resist brazen Russian aggression without risking an armed conflict.

Second, it makes Putin look tough. Again.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson thus faces a serious test. If the attempted murder (or it may turn out to be a triple murder, depending on the health of those most affected) turns out to be very obviously to be laid at the feet of the Russian State, what is an appropriate response?

Will the British worry overmuch about the unpleasant despatch of a spy – deaths in that arena happen constantly, of course – and the unfortunate collateral damage of a Wiltshire policeman? Or will they make a lot of huff and puff and do nothing much?

Our money is on nothing much. Perhaps a few diplomats expelled and a strongly worded note.

The British economy – especially the City of London – increasingly depends on the growing petro-dollar and gas-dollar influx of funds “washed” through banks and finance houses in London. And funds from less obvious sources inside the Russian kleptocracy. Putin knows Britain wouldn’t want anything to upset that, especially when complications from Brexit means those funds could easily get switched to other markets. So this event tests how brazen Russian behaviour can be before any real damage is done to the relationship.

Ordinarily, of course, the Brits would turn to their American colleagues for advice on how to handle this latest “Beast from the East” event. (The “Beast from the East” was the nickname given to the recent blast of cold air from Russia that dumped snow everywhere.) But given the inordinately close relationship between Putin and the Trump administration, we feel it is unlikely that Britain will turn there for help and advice. And relations between Britain and the EU aren’t exactly rosy just now either.

Putin is, unlike his American counterpart, a highly calculating man. We believe he may be testing the UK right now simply because it is increasingly isolated and left to its own resources. Simply to see what happens.

How Johnson responds will be fascinating to watch.

THE BBC’s latest reporting follows:

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon and remain critically ill.

A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now in a serious condition in hospital, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said.

Nerve agents are highly toxic chemicals that stop the nervous system working and shut down bodily functions.

They normally enter the body through the mouth or nose, but can also be absorbed through the eyes or skin.

Mr Rowley, head of Counter Terrorism Policing, said government scientists had identified the agent used, but would not make that information public at this stage.

“This is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder, by administration of a nerve agent,” he said.

“Having established that a nerve agent is the cause of the symptoms… I can also confirm that we believe that the two people who became unwell were targeted specifically.”

He said there was no evidence of a widespread health risk to the public.

Two other police officers who attended the scene were treated in hospital for minor symptoms, before they were given the all clear. It is understood their symptoms included itchy eyes and wheezing.

Analysis

By Richard Galpin, BBC News correspondent – formerly based in Moscow

The announcement by the police that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are the victims of an attack in which a nerve agent was used makes the parallel with the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 even stronger.

Like the radioactive polonium used to kill Litvinenko, a nerve agent is not normally something criminal gangs or terrorist groups can make.

Instead, it is usually manufactured by specialist laboratories under the control of governments – and that inevitably means suspicion will now be very much focused on Russia.

Not only does it have a track record of using poisons to assassinate its enemies, there is also a motive in the case of Sergei Skripal.

As a military intelligence officer in Russia, he betrayed his country by providing information to MI6, reportedly revealing the identities of Russian agents in Europe. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has in the past indicated that traitors deserve to die.

Although the question remains, why would Mr Skripal be attacked now when he has been living in Britain for eight years and came here originally as part of a spy swap?

Mr Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped on a bench outside the Maltings shopping centre.

Police want to speak to anyone who was in the city centre on Sunday afternoon.

They are particularly keen to hear from people who ate at Zizzi or drank in The Bishop’s Mill pub between 13:00 and 16:00 GMT.

Both of those locations remain closed to the public.

There is also a cordon in place outside Mr Skripal’s Salisbury home. A yellow forensic tent has been erected and police have been seen carrying equipment into the building.

Mr Rowley said hundreds of detectives, forensic specialists, analysts and intelligence officers were working round the clock on the case.

The investigation in Salisbury may take several more days, he added.

Prof Malcolm Sperrin, fellow of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, said: “Symptoms of exposure to nerve agents may include respiratory arrest, heart failure, twitching or spasms – anything where the nerve control is degraded.

“Nerve agents can cause death, but not necessarily at low-level exposure or with a minor dose.”

Alastair Hay, emeritus professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, added: “These are very difficult and dangerous chemicals to make.”

Sergei Skripal and his daughter YuliaImage copyright EPA/ YULIA SKRIPAL/FACEBOOK
Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, collapsed on a bench in Salisbury city centre

A public inquiry concluded the killing of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 was probably carried out with the approval of President Putin.

On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told MPs the UK would respond “robustly” to any evidence of Russian “state responsibility” in the Skripal case.

Russia has insisted it has “no information” about what could have led to the incident, but is open to co-operating with British police if requested.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said foreign media had used the incident as part of an anti-Russian campaign.

“It’s a traditional campaign. The tradition is to make things up. We can only see it as a provocation,” she said.

Who is Sergei Skripal?

Undated image taken from the internet of Sergei Skripal in uniform.
Col Skripal, 66, had been living in Salisbury after being released by Russia in 2010

Colonel Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence officer, was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006.

He was convicted of passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI.

After a Cold War-style spy swap at Austria’s Vienna airport, Col Skripal moved to Salisbury, where he kept a low profile for eight years.

Fascinating stuff via Are you ready for this?

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I’m waiting for my Son to die. At least in Heaven there’s food.

 

Compassion fatigue?

Boredom?

Distracted by the Winter Olympics closing ceremony? Massacres in American schools? Trump’s latest tweet? Football?

What will it take to make you sit up and take notice?

Perhaps this. Warning: distressing.

http://www.bbc.com/news/video_and_audio/must_see/43163173/syria-war-children-struggle-to-survive-in-eastern-ghouta

#assad #syria #russia #civilians #children

If you want to share this story, which is something you could to do immediately to raise awareness of this utter disgrace, please cut and paste the link at the end of this sentence, and post it to your Facebook page or wherever: wp.me/p1LY0z-3ya

NEWS UPDATE

There appears to be some success in the outpouring of anger over Russia and Assad’s behaviour. Please KEEP sharing this story as often and as creatively as you can to ensure that pressure is kept up.?

See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43200956

 

X-ray image of woman with her handbagImage copyright PEAR VIDEO

Worried about your bags being stolen at security? One Chinese woman joined her handbag through an X-ray machine to prevent just that.

Staff at Dongguan Railway Station in southern China were shocked to find the silhouette of the train commuter on their X-ray monitors.

An online video showed the bizarre incident took place on Sunday during the Lunar New Year travel rush.

After climbing off the conveyor belt, the woman checked her bags and left.

Extraordinary X-ray images show the woman kneeling on all fours behind her luggage, still wearing high-heeled shoes.

It is unclear why the woman was so anxious about her handbag, but many people in China carry large amounts of cash when travelling home for Chinese New Year.

X-ray image of woman with her handbagImage copyright PEAR VIDEO

The commuter had earlier placed her suitcase on the conveyor belt before attempting to walk through the security scanner with a small handbag, footage from Pear Video shows.

She was then told all bags had to go through the X-ray machine, but she refused to part with her handbag.

Her solution was to join her belongings on the conveyor belt, and she climbed out the other side unscathed, with one security guard laughing with surprise.

Rail station staff in Dongguan have since advised passengers not to enter the X-ray machines, as radiation given off by the scanners could be harmful, local media reported.

The woman was one of an estimated 390 million people expected to travel by train for the Chinese New Year holiday, which falls on 16 February.

So. OK. Let’s be honest. Who hasn’t wanted to follow their bags through the X Ray scanner, huh? Better than those silly booths you have to walk through that are so narrow that you bang the walls with your elbow so the alarm goes off then you get pulled over  … mutter mutter grumble grumble …

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Watching video footage of a Florida student recording the noise of a gunman firing an “AR-15 style rifle” inside their school – killing at least 17 people, and possibly more when the injured either recover or tragically do not – was not good for one’s peace of mind.

The horrific and terrifying noise that such a rifle makes just a few feet from you will live in the mind of viewers forever. What the long-term effect will be on those who were actually there will be, God only knows. The by-now all too familiar photographs of traumatised children and parents are almost too awful to contemplate.

Indeed, one of the greatest dangers of the current situation in America is that people will turn away, feeling helpless, or simply ignore events through compassion fatigue.

This was the 18th school shooting in the USA this year. Which, it should be pointed out, is not even into its third month.

Worse, the alleged perpetrator was known to the school, had been disciplined while there, and previously banned from the campus with a backpack on.

The time for America to ignore its hugely powerful gun lobby and take action to prevent more occurrences of these acts is now so long overdue that it is not even worth fulminating in shock any more.

America must do take following steps now, or accept that disenfranchised marginalised youths – nearly always male, and clearly disturbed – will continue to act like this with relative impunity.

No, this problem will not be fixed overnight – the solution will be long, tortuous and depressingly tough and complex – but every day that is wasted simply invites another such event. America has to start this journey sometime. If not now, when?

  • “Assault style/AR-15” rifles must be banned throughout the country. For everyone. They are unnecessary for vermin control on farms, they are unnecessary for hunting, they are unnecessary for personal protection, and in the wrong hands they are irreparably and uniquely harmful. That’s it, no discussion, the time has come. Someone needs to show some leadership and get this change implemented.
  • No gun of any kind should be sold, by anyone, to anyone, without thorough psychological and background checks. America needs, as far as it can, to keep guns out of the hands of people who are likely to turn them on themselves or others.
  • The USA needs a gun amnesty to encourage legacy guns out of the community so they can be destroyed. This will reduce the number of guns stolen (currently 200,000 a year from legal gun owners) that end up int he criminal community.
  • People keeping unsecured weapons in their home should be subject to tough new nationally-agreed sanctions including, but not limited to, the permanent removal of their weapons and a ban on them replacing them

None of these aims should be rejected by reasonable advocates of gun ownership. Most people outside of America consider, as we have said many times before, that the right to bear arms is as inherently unwise as the right to arm bears. But it has to be accepted that the American public has a unique view of the matter. But that view can still be respected while making America’s children – indeed, all their population – much safer.

Some will say, again, that the problem is schools that are gun free zones, that all that is needed is more and better armed security. This is, of course, a simple nonsense. No school facility can ever be adequately secured against a madman with a semi-automatic rifle, and that’s the only point that matters. Unless you want to turn schools into the equivalent of armed prison camps, which is not only impractical, but is also not healthy for the children inside them. Why would America want to do that, when Americans can choose instead to rid society of semi-automatic weapons if they so wish?

Some will say, again, that guns are not the only deadly weapon available to assailants. And they’d be right. But it is much more difficult to kill 17 people with a knife, or a baseball bat. And that’s the point. And it is unarguable. It is also unarguable that the vast majority of attacks are carried out with guns, and the most deadly have always been with AR-15 style weapons, simply because of the ease with which multiple shots can be got off.

Some will say again that getting rid of such weapons is too hard, that illegal arms will continue to circulate amongst the criminal classes, and the argument needs to be confronted honestly. Yes, it will be hard to eliminate such weapons from the streets of America, and it will take time. As each such weapon is discovered, it must be destroyed. The population of such weapons will fall only slowly. (Although a gun amnesty will speed the process.) But people committing massacres are not career or professional criminals. They are not even gang members. They are loners, and normally not criminal in any other identifiable sense. In other words, the argument is a simple furphy.

The argument in favour of starting the process of reducing the population of such guns vastly outweighs any difficulties.

Because the question always comes back to “if not now, when?”

parkland-florida-school-shooting-05-ap-jc-180214_4x3_992

Without political leadership – without bi-partisan political leadership – America is simply doomed to seeing these scenes over and over. What is clear is that the current situation is unacceptable in a modern, free country. If anyone doubts that it is, they should visit 17 households in Broward County tonight.

Already there is evidence that tourist numbers to the USA are being negatively affected by the widespread perception of the country as riddled with gun violence.

And the psychological impact on America’s own population can hardly be imagined.

Let’s work together on what CAN be done, rather than waste any more time arguing about whether anything should be done. And before any smart-alec remarks that this is nothing to do with a writer in Australia, we would simply make three points.

  • Sometimes, a little distance is required to give perspective.
  • We have successfully tackled this problem in Australia and largely eradicated these weapons from our society.
  • We have friends in America. Many of them. And some of those friends have children.

Only when we have sought to address the core problem is it appropriate to say “Prayers and sympathy” to the victims. Because to express such sentiments, but to refuse to even begin to seriously tackle how to prevent events like today’s terrible massacre, is utter hypocrisy. Damnable hypocrisy. And it should be called out as such.

Something must be done. Starting today. That’s the bottom line.

 

 

This tragic story of an 18 year old student who died of an anaphylactic allergic reaction AFTER she warned the waiter of her allergies AND the waiter checked with the kitchen.

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But she’s still dead.

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-42623423

We do not seek to pre-judge the deliberation and findings from this particular case before the coroner, at all, but in a general sense it can hardly be stressed enough the duty of care required of anyone who gives or sells food to another person.

Restaurants, specifically, have to protect the recipient from even touching, let alone ingesting, food containing problematic ingredients, or contaminated with them.

In an industry bedevilled with casual staffing arrangements, this is fiendishly tricky, but people simply have to take it seriously.

Quite apart from the moral responsibility, losing a criminal or civil case that resulted from a matter like this could result in imprisonment, fines, massive damages, or both.

It also highlights the absolute need for people who suffer from extreme allergies to keep their Epi-pens up to date.

Very sad. Very scary.

As the parent of an anaphylactic child (who has safely made it to 26, so far, fingers crossed) we protected her by building up her self-confidence to say “No”, and by simply not trusting wait staff and kitchens to take the matter seriously.

We lost track of the time, with eggs, for example, when she was offered cakes and biscuits, where the response to our worried enquiry “Er … wasn’t that made with eggs?” was met with dumb ignorance.

Sometimes a list of ingredients would be produced – good idea – and we would point to “Albumin” on the list. What about that? “Dunno mate, what is it?” “Um … egg white?” “No, really?”

So when she travelled round Europe as a young adult, we equipped her with a laminated explanation of her allergies and how seriously they needed to be treated, in a variety of languages to suit every country she was visiting. A total pain for a footloose youngster to have to brandish wherever she ate, to be sure, but then again she made it home alive.

Shahida didn’t.

wildfire3

Idiots (and they are idiots) who seek to deny climate change reality may care to note, as the BBC have, that the United States experienced a record year of losses from fires, hurricanes and other weather related disasters in 2017, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Total losses amounted to $306bn the agency said, over $90bn more than the previous record set in 2005.

Making the point that refusing to address climate change is not only idiocy, it’s very expensive idiocy, economically, too.

Last year saw 16 separate events with losses exceeding $1bn, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

NOAA also confirmed that 2017 was the third warmest year on record for the US. Only 2012 and 2016 were hotter.

Last year witnessed two Category 4 hurricanes make landfall in the States.

Hurricane Harvey produced major flooding as a result of a storm surge and extreme rain. Nearly 800,000 people needed help. Researchers have already shown that climate change increased the likelihood of the observed rainfall by a factor of at least 3.5.

Noaa says the total costs of the Harvey event were $125bn, which is second only to Hurricane Katrina in terms of costs over the 38 years the record has been maintained.

Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 storm for the longest period on record. Rain gauges in Nederland, Texas, recorded 1,539mm, the largest ever recorded for a single event in the mainland US. Hurricanes Irma and Maria cost $50bn and $90bn respectively.

As well as hurricanes, there were devastating fires in western states, particularly in California. While last winter and spring saw heavy rains in the region that alleviated a long-term drought, the resulting boom in vegetation created abundant wildfire fuel. Deadly fires in both the north and south of California meant hundreds of thousands of residents had to be evacuated from their homes.

The report from NOAA says that across the US, the overall cost of these fires was $18bn, tripling the previous wildfire cost record.

“In the general picture the warming [of the] US over the long term is related to the larger scale warming we have seen on the global scale,” said Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA’s monitoring section.

“The US will have a lot more year to year variability so that it bounces up and down depending on prevailing weather regimes. But the long term signal is tied with long term warming.”

The eastern US has been experiencing an extreme cold snap, also one of the side effects of global climate change, leading some, such as US president Donald Trump, to query the impact of global warming.

But the stats don’t lie. Temperatures in most regions of the world were above the 1981-2010 average – especially in the Arctic. On the island of Svalbard, the city of Longyearbyen repeatedly experienced mean monthly temperatures more than 6 degrees C above the long-term mark.

In November last year the World Meteorological Organisation issued a provisional bulletin stating that 2017 was likely the second or third warmest year on record. That prediction will be clarified in the coming days and weeks as various agencies around the world publish their data for the full year.

There are usually some small differences between the datasets held by the different national bodies based mainly on their coverage of the polar regions and and in their estimates of sea-surface temperature.

Meanwhile, Australia swelters yet again, with our first serious fires of the season, and often having to endure temperatures in the 40s. And our politicians continue to fiddle while the country, quite literally, burns.

civilianAs we have wandered Facebook and Instagram and all the rest of it, catching up on friends’ and acquaintances’ (and a few celebrities’) wishes for the New Year, one thing has struck us forcibly.

In the 1980s and 90s it seemed to us, most of the wishes were about health and happiness and wealth – hope the New Year brings you lots of money and the energy to enjoy it, essentially.

In this new century, the world seems a more anxious and thoughtful place. And as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, even more so.

It’s easy to see why. The old order is collapsing, or at least seems to be, at least to a degree.

The European experiment, which was always about unity and not just economics, regardless of how it was “sold”, seems mired in intractable problems. Not just the misguided Brexit – an especially self-immolatory act of political lunacy born of lies, anti-immigration sentiment and a generalised angst given something to focus on by weak leadership, especially that of David Cameron – but by the difficulties in keeping Eastern European countries with no strong tradition of liberal democracy signed up to the particular rules demanded of that heavy burden, and the eternal problem of encouraging people to work to a common good rather than a local or regional one.

Those in rich countries or areas are rapidly becoming sick of bailing out poorer areas.

The ultimate failure, of course, is political – as it always is – is in explaining to them why that’s good policy, and a burden worth shouldering. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Brexit, Greece, Catalonia, Northern Italy or elsewhere. The failure is not economic, it’s political.

The United States, for so long the arbiter of seemingly everything both good and bad in the world, at least from, say 1943 onwards, now seems lost and uncertain of its role.

In part, this is very obviously because economically the country is no longer the source of unending world wealth, but also because Russian and China (in particular) have parlayed their growing economic might into political clout. Rumours of America’s demise have been hugely over-inflated – it is still the world’s biggest economy by far, with the largest armed forces by some distance, and massive diplomatic clout. But increasingly the country looks like a wounded beast thrashing around in its death throes. There is inadequate investment in the technologies of the future which America must lead in order to maintain its competitive advantage, and its political influence is deeply harmed by the perception outside the USA that its political leadership has, essentially, collapsed.

trump handsThe President looks to all the world, and increasingly to even his own supporters,  to be a scary mixture of stupidity and even mental illness, the Congress seems little more than a quacking collection of self-interested ducks, and any level of informed debate which might turn this miasma around seems largely drowned out by a mixture of bread and circuses and mindless partisanship.

Ranged against this, and perhaps most worryingly, significant numbers of young people look to the command economies of America’s greatest rival with some degree of envy. And every excess of bluster (of which the current standoff with Iran and North Korea are only the most obvious) makes the apparent stability of Russia and China look more attractive, and by implication, their systems. In reality, of course, Russia is little more than a dictatorship by kleptocracy, with highly dubious international ambitions and no regard for the freedom of its own people, and China is run by a ruthlessly domineering state apparatus that papers over substantial internal divisions whilst attempting to feed the middle-class ambitions of its people.

There are, of course, great problems with poverty and lack of opportunity in both countries, just as there are in the rust belt states of the USA or the china-poor-migrant-workers.jpgwobbling rural American states trying to make their way in a world where the produce market is increasingly borderless, or in Latin America, but we hear very little of the problems faced by the command economies of China and Russia (and their imitators) because the first thing throttled by their leadership is a free press.

The argument that judiciously managed free trade conducted by democracies is the fastest and most reliable route to the greater good of all – which should be the clarion call of all sides of Western politics – has sadly morphed, driven by localised economic hardship, into rampant protectionism in the USA, which is hardly how to inspire the people to believe in the system long term.

Capitalism’s own internal contradictions gave us the GFC in recent memory. Instead of pinioning it for what it was – a failure of sensible regulation and the inevitable result of uncontrolled greed by a small elite – America has circled the wagons and thinks it can fix the problem by being rude to its friends and neighbours, investing directly in protecting industries that should rightly be exposed to the winds of competition, and continuing to ramp up endless castles of debt, the construction of which mountain will now be enhanced by reducing its tax take.

To those casting about for security and predictability, it looks like madness, and it is.

The paper claimed mainstream climate models misunderstood the role of clouds

Pile on top of this the very obvious fact that the weather is getting “worse”. This worrysome trend is becoming patently obvious to anyone with half a brain, and debates about why seem so yesterday when the facts are faced up to. Against a US President who jokes in a snowstorm that some global warming might be helpful is a growing understanding in the population as a whole that something serious is up. The message that global warming really (and immediately) means more (and greater) extreme weather events is hitting home. Bigger and more destructive storms of all kinds, including snowstorms. Habitat change threatening species (and many more than polar bears) and subsistence farming across the planet. Large populated areas of low-lying country threatened with likely inundation. Industrial-scale farming patterns worldwide need adjusting and fast.

201708asia_afghanistan_mosque

And last by by no means least, the entire world seems doomed to engage in a seemingly never-ending asymmetrical war with the forces of extreme violence – now, notably, “Islamic” violence – which represents a tiny fraction of the religion’s worldwide ummah, but which taints it all with sometimes tragic consequences, despite the very obvious fact that many more Muslims are killed by the extremists than are Westerners.

The current paralysis of world political thinking is nowhere better illustrated than by the failure to deal with the philosophical basis of the extremism. The philosophy of extremist Islam is nothing new, but its ability to de-stabilise the world is new. Free availability of arms both large and small, (many supplied from the West), instant digital communication, and a perpetual media spotlight make the menace much greater than it ever has been.

And to even say “Maybe if we stopped bombing towns and villages with enhanced munitions then at least some people might stop becoming radicalised?” is to invite howls of derision and even cat-calls of “Traitor”. As we move into 2018, patriotism has become not just the refuge of scoundrels, but also those who wish to deny palpably obvious realities. The equivalent for Muslims is to say “Maybe we Shia and Sunni should stop killing each other and live in peace?” Even to voice the opinion risks swift retribution.

It is hardly surprising, faced with all this, that worldwide people are retreating into a sort of mutualised depression, for which social media provides one poor outlet, with plaintive appeals to enjoy “A peaceful New Year” replacing “Health, Wealth and Happiness”.

Part of the problem is the seemingly intractable nature of all these problems.

In all these scenarios, the themes seem simply too large, too complex, and too “far away”, for ordinary people to wreak any meaningful change in a positive direction. And it is in this specific context that we propose a return to basics.

We offer you these critical commandments to guide us all in troubling times.

  • Get out and vote for what you believe in.

Abstention-ism is not a viable option. It is leaving “it” to the elites that has got us into this awful mess.

The First Vote

But don’t just vote. Get involved with the political party of your choice. Ask questions, and demand answers.

Get involved in policy-making. Be a squeaky wheel. If you don’t feel qualified to talk about the niceties of defence planning or international economics, then start with what you do know. Your local school district. Rubbish collection. Parks and gardens. Traffic flow. Take back control over your life.

The resulting empowerment is not just good for society, and good training in how to effect change, it’s good for your own psychological well-being, too.

The demise of party membership is just the first and most obvious example of how we willfully gave away our influence over those that rule us.

This is as true in China and Russia as it is in Australia and America. Governmental systems vary, but the power of the people doesn’t. Ultimately, when exercised, the power of the people always and inevitably wins, because there’s more of “us” than there is of “them”. And their control rests on our acquiescence. (That’s why the elite are more than happy to keep us satiated with sports and hamburgers and alcohol.)

So if you want to win, get in the game. Don’t be a spectator. “Subvert the dominant paradigm”, whoever and wherever you are.

Secondly, if the drift towards climate disaster or world conflict terrifies you, (and it should), then channel that fear into something that makes a difference.

  • Don’t like climate change? Turn it off. Reduce your energy consumption.

flashing-panda-wall-switch-light-nightlight-6-led-aaa-batteries-led-wall-switchEveryone can do this, even if it simply involves turning a few lights off.

Only use heating or cooling systems when you really need to.

The planet will be grateful, and your hip-pocket will thank you too.

It really is that simple. And spend two minutes more a week recycling properly, and encouraging everyone around you to do the same.

While you’re making this change, eat a little less meat. Meat (which we freely admit we adore) is highly harmful to the environment. If you’re a dedicated carnivore, maybe enjoy just one vegetarian meal a week?

Never was “Think global, act local” more true, yet we seem to be bored with that call already. Familiarity breeds contempt. It’s time to remind everyone that tiny changes, multiplied by millions, really do make a massive difference.

  • And don’t be silent on violence. Ever.

Silence equals consent. Our silence. Your silence.

libanon25-2

It is odd, isn’t it, how we can become deeply involved in the consequences of a mugging death of a grandmother round the corner from where we live, but become inured to images of warplanes bombing civilian areas, often carried out in our name? The grandmother killed in such an event is no different from the grandmother who got mugged. Each grandmother hoped for a quiet and happy retirement, with enough to live on in a simple, life-sustaining way, surrounded by the happy cries of her grandchildren, tending to a few plants, passing the time of day with friends and neighbours in the sunset of their life. And then this dream was cruelly snatched away from them.

How do we decide to be broken-hearted about one, but cold and unmoved by the other?

To reduce and then prevent war, we simply have to – en masse – make it clear to our leaders that violence conducted in our name is not acceptable to us, and we will withdraw our support from those who conduct it.

Sounds simplistic? It is. That’s the beauty of it. It really is simple.

Over-complicate the goal and it becomes un-do-able. So keep it simple. Support candidates who support peace, and don’t support those who don’t. And make your choice known, on social media, to family and friends, and to the politicians themselves.

Want to do more? Start by arguing that our governments should not sell arms (of any kind) to other governments. Over 90% of the deaths in armed conflicts worldwide are from bullets. If we stop making those bullets, many of those people will not die. Better still, shorn of the ease of pulling a trigger to resolve a conflict, many such conflicts will be more likely to result in negotiations.

Continue by demanding that we choose to withdraw career progression from those who ache to create conflict in order to “use” the weapons and service people at their disposal. Bellicose commanders at all levels are progressively replaced by those who know the reality of war, and will do anything to avoid it. We do not do this partially, we do it on all sides.

And then tell those that govern us that we demand that they reduce the reliance on weaponry to “achieve peace”. (In reality, of course, it is not about peace at all, but is used to achieve political influence.)

We demand that armed forces everywhere are pared back to the lowest level concomitant with providing an effective defence posture against all likely events. In countries like Britain, for example, historical nonsenses like the “independent” Trident nuclear weapon system are simply scrapped. The money released by this ratcheting down of defence spending become a “peace dividend” to re-engineer businesses that rely on the military-industrial complex for survival, and to support servicepeople adjusting to civilian life.

Yes, we know we will immediately be accused, of course, of being namby-pamby, of not living in the real world, of misunderstanding how power works, of being naive. You will, too. But we are none of those things.

We have spent a life watching closely (and sometimes intimately) how the people at the top of power structures work. What motivates them. And what motivates them most is the maintenance of their power.

It is not always that they are simply power hungry, although power is unquestionably very attractive and an aphrodisiac, both to the practitioner and those around him or her. But few people get involved in politics in any system merely to aggrandise themselves, merely for career-ism.

Most genuinely believe they are acting in the greater good, and this motivates them to stick with the long hours, the dangers, the disrupted family life, the huge responsibilities, the petty treacheries, and all the rest of it.

Threaten to take that opportunity to “do good” away – the psychological bedrock of their career – is the most powerful thing any of us can do to affect their behaviour.

That is why the consent – or withdrawal of consent – for politicians to simply do as they wish regardless of our opinions rests on every single one of us. Alone, we can achieve little, but building a consensus rests with every single one of us. We can hide under the covers, or we can speak our mind. We can stand up and be counted, and when enough people are counted, politicians and rulers react.

Every single one of us can say “Not that, this.” Some of us will be ignored. Some of us will mocked for doing so. Some will lose friends. Some will even be injured or killed. But every one of us has the capacity and the right to say “Not that, this.” It is the one thing that no one can take away from us. We control our own opinions. Our voice is our own, whatever the cost. And the choice to use it is always ours and ours alone.

And that’s why this is our New Year’s wish. For you, and for the world.

Because war really is over. If you want it. Badly enough.

Here’s a thought. Why not share a link to this blog? That’d be a good start.

PS A number of people have asked why Churchill – a famous war leader – heads this column. The answer is simple. As someone who actually experienced war, Churchill hated it, whilst nevertheless waging it ferociously. His most relevant quotation on the topic is also perhaps his least quoted: “Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war”. That’s why. If Churchill “got it”, anyone can.

Commuter Poem

Posted: December 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

I saw him walking home

Fluoro yellow vest sun hat brown brogues neatly polished and a limp

His jacket cried out: Crossing Supervisor

And I had never spoken to someone charged

with Supervising Crossing. I was intrigued.

So I said to him, elucidate me please

Do I require supervision for just a small Crossing?

Maybe a passing annoyance? Something trivial?

Like when my skinny cafe latte is only warmed through and not hot, again?

Or can I manage that amount of Crossing on my own recognisance?

Maybe your supervision is required for a full-blown Crossing?

Like yelling at that suicidal office worker stepping off the kerb, eyes fixed on his phone?

And yes: I think you’d better Supervise me for when I next have to deal with that guy: the one who thinks the world isn’t frying slowly …

… this idiot on the radio, right now

I think my Crossing with him is heading towards incandescent. Supernova.

He glanced at me.

I don’t think he could hear me through the glass.

And the recycling truck was emptying bottles.

Turned and weaved onto a small path, and went inside the weatherboard cottage.

Bent. The cottage. And him.

So I drove on, unrequited.

And spent the day Crossing at everyone, back and forth, all unsupervised and somehow strangely anxious.

Paul Alexander spends almost every moment of the day inside his iron lung. Photo: Jennings Brown for Gizmodo

This article is reproduced from Gizmodo, with thanks, and without adulteration. It deserves to be read by every anti-vaccination campaigner, and every parent frightened by their propaganda.

Martha Lillard spends half of every day with her body encapsulated in a half-century old machine that forces her to breathe. Only her head sticks out of the end of the antique iron lung. On the other end, a motorised lever pulls the leather bellows, creating negative pressure that induces her lungs to suck in air.

In 2013, the Post-Polio Health International (PPHI) organisations estimated that there were six to eight iron lung users in the United States. Now, PPHI executive director Brian Tiburzi says he doesn’t know anyone alive still using the negative-pressure ventilators. Recently, I met three polio survivors who depend on iron lungs. They are among the last few, possibly the last three.

Martha

Their locations form a line that cuts directly through the heart of the US – one in Dallas, one outside Oklahoma City, and one in Kansas City, Missouri – what some call tornado alley.

Storms have always been especially difficult for Lillard because if the iron lung loses power, she could die in her sleep. She lives alone, aside from three dogs and 20 geckos that she keeps in plastic terrariums filled with foliage and wool. “They like to sleep in the fleece, wrapped up like a burrito,” she said as she introduced me to a few of her favourites.

Lillard sleeps in the iron lung, so it is in her bedroom. Even though the tank is a dull canary yellow it pops in the room, which is painted chartreuse – like the rest of the house, inside and out – and filled with toys and dolls that she has collected throughout her lifetime. On the walls hang a crucifix, a plush Pink Panther, and mirrors strategically placed so she can see around the room and into the hallway.

Her iron lung has portholes and windows on the side; a pressure gauge at the top. The machine is actually cobbled together from two iron lungs. One, the March of Dimes gave her when she was a child. The other, she bought from someone in Utah, after she haggled him down from $US25,000 ($33,127) to $US8000 ($10,600). The body has also been modified over the years. Her grandfather invented a motorised pulley system that closes the bed tray into the tank after she climbs in. He also replaced the brushed aluminium mirror above the neck slot with a real mirror so that she could have a clear view to the rest of the room when she’s locked in the canister. A local engineer used a motor from an old voter registration device to build a mechanism that tightens the collar around her neck after she slips her head through the portal. The fan belts and half-horsepower motor have been replaced about 10 times.

“It seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing. You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating.”

When Lillard is outside of the tank, she can breathe using a positive-pressure ventilator, a smaller device that pushes air into her lungs. But that instrument doesn’t provide the same relief as when she puts her entire body into the 290kg, 2.3m-long apparatus. Plus, forcing air into the lungs can cause inflammation or damage the air sacs. When she’s sick, she can only heal if she spends full days in the iron lung. She calls herself “a human battery” because she has to recharge every day.

Lillard is 69, 145cm and weighs 44kg. Her back is arched from scoliosis. She didn’t get surgery when she was a child because doctors didn’t expect her to make it to her teenage years, and she never had an operation as an adult because polio survivors can stop breathing when they’re on anaesthesia.

She was infected with polio at her fifth birthday party at the Joyland Amusement Park on 8 June 1953. Nine days later, her neck ached so bad she couldn’t raise her head off the pillow. Her parents said it was probably just a summer cold, but Lillard could tell they were afraid. They took her in for a spinal tap, which confirmed it was polio.

floorLillard looks through a photo album on her living room floor. Photo: Jennings Brown for Gizmodo

Lillard asked me to take out a photo album so she could show me snapshots of her youth as she sat on a blanket on the floor of her living room, where it’s more comfortable for her to sit when she’s out of the machine. “I wanted to be a ballerina. That was my big wish. I started walking on my toes when I was one, and I just constantly was after ballerina dolls. We didn’t have a dance school in town until I was five and my mum was going to enrol me that year, but I got sick,” she told me. “I think now of my life as a ballet. I have to balance so many things. It’s a phenomenal amount of energy I have to use to coordinate everything in my life.”

Polio is a silver bullet

“All the mothers were just terrified because people were just getting it right and left,” Lillard said. “They didn’t know if it was a virus or bacteria or how you caught it.”

Poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease that can cause paralysis of legs, arms and respiratory muscles. “The polio virus is a silver bullet designed to kill specific parts of the brain,” Richard Bruno, a clinical psychophysiologist, and director of the International Centre for Polio Education said. “But parents today have no idea what polio was like, so it’s hard to convince somebody that lives are at risk if they don’t vaccinate.”

When Lillard was a child, polio was every parent’s worst nightmare. The worst polio outbreak year in US history took place in 1952, a year before Lillard was infected. There were about 58,000 reported cases. Out of all the cases, 21,269 were paralysed and 3145 died. “They closed theatres, swimming pools, families would keep their kids away from other kids because of the fear of transmission,” Bruno said.

POLIO EPIDEMIC
The emergency polio ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston, 16 August 1955. Patients are using the same Emerson iron lung model that some polio survivors use today. Photo: AP

Children under the age of five are especially susceptible. In the 1940s and 1950s, hospitals across the US were filled with rows of iron lungs that kept victims alive. Lillard recalls being in rooms packed with metal tubes – especially when there were storms and all the men, women, adults and children would be moved to the same room so nurses could manually operate the iron lungs if the power went out. “The period of time that it took the nurse to get out of the chair, it seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing,” Lillard said. “You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating and it was just terrifying. The only noise that you can make when you can’t breathe is clicking your tongue. And that whole dark room just sounded like a big room full of chickens just cluck-cluck-clucking. All the nurses were saying, ‘Just a second, you’ll be breathing in just a second.'”

In 1955, Americans finally had access to the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk. “It was hailed as a medical miracle and the excitement about it was really unparalleled as far as health history in the United States,” Jay Wenger, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s polio-eradication effort told me. “No one who remembers the 1950s, in terms of polio, wants to go back there and be in that situation again.”

By 1961, there were only 161 reported cases in the US. But in 1988, there were still an estimated 350,000 cases worldwide. That year, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the Rotary Club began an aggressive campaign to end polio everywhere. Last year there were 37 cases reported in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

According to Bruno, if an infected person in either of those countries visited family in an area such as Orange County, California, where many parents are opting out of vaccinating their children, “then we could be talking about the definition of a polio epidemic.”

Wenger said that’s why the Gates Foundation recently joined the other organisations in the global effort to eradicate polio. “If there’s a virus anywhere in the world, it could just come back in,” Wenger said. “Some little kid could get on a plane and fly in and reinfect an area. And if the kids in that area are not vaccinated, you could start the virus circulating again.”

But even though the last wild case of polio in the US was in 1979, it still haunts the country. “A lot of people think of polio as a disease of the past and don’t realise there are people here today that are still suffering the effects of polio.” said Brian Tiburzi, executive director of Post-Polio Health International (PPHI), an advocacy group for the estimated 350,000 to 500,000 polio survivors living in the US.

Some polio survivors were only partially impaired or got better. For instance, Mia Farrow only had to spend eight months in an iron lung when she was nine, before going on to become a famous actress and polio advocate. And golfer Jack Nicklaus had symptoms for two weeks as a child, but as an adult only had sore joints.

But many polio victims have breathing difficulties for the rest of their lives, or have issues later in life when overworked neurons burn out, a condition called post-polio syndrome. “I breathe 20 per cent of what you breathe with every breath,” Lillard explained to me. “You still have the neurons that work the muscles that you breathe with.”

Let it breathe for you

Lillard offered to let me try out her iron lung about an hour after I met her. She showed me how to operate the ad hoc mechanisms that would lock me into the tank and tighten the collar around my neck like a camera shutter – tight enough that no air can escape, but loose enough that I don’t choke myself.

I climbed into the bed tray, slipped my head through the hole, tightened the collar, then flipped the switch that controls the pulley that closes the tray into the main canister. As the system locked me in, I had a quick wave of claustrophobic panic and my instinct was to take deep breaths, but a motor was controlling that. I tried to describe the feeling to Lillard, but the machine was inhaling for me, so no sound came out. I had to wait a moment for the release.

“Let the air out of your lungs and let it breathe for you,” Lillard said. “Imagine if you were real tired of breathing, how good that would feel – if you were struggling to take a breath.”

Being in an iron lung was the most relief and discomfort I have ever felt at the same time. I slowly got used to the mechanical rhythm and began feeling a little relaxed. I tried closing my mouth, and air still rushed in through my lips. I felt like a vacuum cleaner.

As I climbed out, Lillard warned me to be careful and not break any of the switches or pulleys. If I damaged anything, and she wasn’t able to get someone to repair it within a few hours, she might not have made it through the night. A few weeks earlier, the collar-opener broke and she was trapped inside. Fortunately, her housekeeper was there to help her force it open, and a friend who does custom metal fabrication for motorcycles, planes and other machines, Tony Baustert, came a few hours later to repair it.

Recently, an ice storm knocked her power out for three days and the generator malfunctioned. The fire department came over but they wouldn’t run a power line from down the street or provide a temporary generator, Lillard said. Fortunately, one of the firefighters came by when he was off-duty and fixed the generator. During the panic, Lillard thought about Dianne Odell, a polio survivor who died in her iron lung in Memphis in 2008, after she lost power during a storm. Her father and brother-in-law took turns pumping the bellows by hand but couldn’t sustain the rhythm long enough to keep her alive.

Understandably, Lillard lives in a constant state of anxiety over the functionality of her iron lung. But she said the company responsible for servicing the device, Philips Respironics, hasn’t been much help. She recalls one time when a repair person disassembled the machine to make a repair, then tried to leave before putting it back together. Another technician took it apart and couldn’t figure out how to fix it, so Lillard had to call another mechanically skilled friend, Jerry House, to help.

These days her biggest concern is the canvas spiral collar that creates the seal around her neck. She used to have to replace them every few months after they wore out and stopped keeping a seal. Back then she could get them for a few dollars each, but she recently bought two from Respironics for a little more than $US200 ($265) each. She said the company wouldn’t sell her any more because they only have 10 left. For years she’s been trying to find someone to make a new collar. She uses Scotch guard on her current supply and tries not to move her neck around, hoping to make them last as long as possible.

I asked her what happens if she runs out.

“Well, I die,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone.

Iron lungs became the responsibility of Philips through mergers and acquisitions. The March of Dimes supplied and serviced iron lungs until the end of the ’60s, around the same time the J.H. Emerson company stopped manufacturing the product. Once Salk’s vaccine diminished the need for polio support and advocacy, March of Dimes handed off iron lung responsibilities to Lifecare Services. Medical supply company Respironics acquired Lifecare in 1996, then merged with Philips in 2007.

Over the years, Lifecare and Respironics have tried to get more polio survivors to use alternative breathing aids – devices that were newer, cheaper, easier to service, and didn’t require parts that were no longer manufactured. In 2004, Respironics gave iron lung users three options: Transition to another ventilator device, keep using the iron lung but know that Respironics may not be able to repair the device, or accept full ownership and responsibility of the iron lung and find someone else to repair it. According to the Post-Polio Health International, responses “ranged from ‘it is understandable that repairing a device made that long ago would be difficult’ to ‘a multi-million dollar company should be able to just make parts'”.

Philips Respironics denied multiple requests to comment for this story. But polio advocates believe the company can do more to help polio survivors who have struggled with the effects of polio their entire lives.

“It would be helpful if the people who are contractually responsible and morally and ethically responsible for polio survivors did something to help these people,” said International Centre for Polio Education director Richard Bruno. “It would be like if you bought a used car, you drove it a block and the car stopped working. Then you go back to the car dealer and you say, ‘Hey, the car stopped working.’ And they say, ‘Well too bad, you bought it and that’s the way life goes.’ Except instead of a car it’s a machine that you need to live.”

The iron lung’s a part of me

Like Lillard, Paul Alexander, 70, also relies on a mechanic to keep his iron lung running.

I met Alexander a few times in his small house in Dallas. He spends nearly every moment in his iron lung in the centre of his living room, which is decorated with degrees, awards, pictures of family, and a drawing of the Scottish folk singer Donovan, who had polio. When people enter the front door a few metres away from him, he usually greets them with a warm upside-down smile, reflected in the mirror above his head.

One of the times I visited Alexander, I walked in on him editing a memoir that’s set to be published in a few months. He types and answers the phone with his mouth, using a capped pen attached to a plastic wand he clenches with his teeth. During another visit, his friend and mechanical saviour Brady Richards stopped by to check in on Alexander.

Alexander, who got polio in 1952 when he was five, is almost entirely paralysed below the neck, but that hasn’t stopped him from going to law school and becoming a trial lawyer. “When I transferred to University of Texas, they were horrified to think that I was going to bring my iron lung down, but I did, and I put it in the dorm, and I lived in the dorm with my iron lung,” he told me. “I had a thousand friends before it was over with, who all wanted to find out what’s that guy downstairs with a head sticking out of a machine doing here?”

Alexander hasn’t been to a trial in a few years now as it has become nearly impossible for him to get out of the iron lung for a few hours like he used to do when he went to court and represented clients in a wheelchair.

In 2015, a friend of Alexander uploaded a YouTube video of Alexander explaining the issues he was having with his iron lung, hoping it would be seen by a machinist who knew how to repair the respirator. Finally someone connected Alexander with someone kind and skilled enough to help. “I looked for years to find someone who knew how to work on iron lungs,” Alexander said. “Brady Richards, it’s a miracle that I found him.”

Richards runs the Environmental Testing Laboratory, which does rigorous testing to make sure equipment and products meet environmental standards (everything from checking if a TV mount is earthquake proof to checking how an ambulance will handle a T-bone collision). In one of Richard’s garages, he keeps his side projects – hot rods, desert race cars, and a small collection of iron lungs and parts. This is where Richards refurbished the current machine that Alexander uses and where he is fixing up another replacement. “When we first brought the tube into the shop, one of my younger employees asked me what I was doing with these smoker grills,” Richards said. “And I was like these are not smokers, these are iron lungs. And all my younger guys had no idea what that meant.”

Alexander had been in the refurbished model for about a couple months when I first met with him in September. To him, it was like a new skin. “Once you live in an iron lung forever, it seems like, it becomes such a part of your mentality. Like if somebody touches the iron lung – touches it – I can feel that. I can feel the vibration go through the iron lung,” he said. “If there’s a slight bit of a vibration that occurs as the result of the mechanics – worn out the fan belt or it needs grease or anything like that – it tends to change the breath slightly. Yep, the iron lung’s a part of me, I’m afraid.”

My worst thought

My final visit was Mona Randolph, 81, who lives with her husband Mark, 63, in Kansas City, Missouri. When I first arrived, a helper was tucking Mona into the machine for the night. They lift Mona into the iron lung using a mechanical arm attached to their ceiling since Mark’s back problems prevent him from lifting her into the iron lung, like he used to do when they first met in the ’80s.

Mona got polio at the age of 20 in 1956. At the time, she was a skilled pianist planning her wedding. She needed an iron lung for the first year, until she went to rehab in Warm Spring, Georgia, where she was able to wean herself off. But 20 years later, in 1977, she had a series of bronchial infections – possibly due to post-polio syndrome – and her doctors told her she needed to start using an iron lung again. “The ‘yellow submarine’ is my necessary, trusted, mechanical friend,” she told me. “I approach it with relief in store at night and thankfully leave it with relief in the morning.”

Mona is covered under Mark’s insurance and Medicare, but neither of those help with the iron lung or the caretakers that Mona needs. The Randolphs opted to take full ownership of the iron lung when Respironics was making its big push to offload them. Since then, Mark, a software engineer who has many other engineer skills, and Mona’s cousin, a former aircraft mechanic, have maintained and repaired Mona’s “yellow submarine”. Mark said the medical costs are about the same as a new car every year, “But what would I spend it on if not for Mona.”

When I met with the Randolphs, Mark gave me photocopies of old service manuals and operating instructions. He filled me in on little-known history about the Emerson iron lung and its inventor, whom they met at a Post-Polio convention. I realised what each of these iron lung users have in common are the aid of generous, mechanically skilled friends and family. And that’s probably the main reason they have been able to live long and full lives, despite the hardships and anxieties of depending on ageing machinery to survive.

But another thing they all had in common is a desire for the next generations to know about them so we’ll realise how fortunate we are to have vaccines. “When children inquire what happened to me, I tell them the nerve wires that tell my muscles what to do were damaged by a virus,” Mona said. “And ask them if they have had their vaccine to prevent this. No one has ever argued with me.”

Alexander told me that if he had kids he would have made sure they were vaccinated. “Now, my worst thought is that polio’s come back,” he said. “If there’s so many people who’ve not been – children, especially – have not been vaccinated… I don’t even want to think about it.”

Lillard is heartbroken when she meets anti-vaccine activists.

“Of course, I’m concerned about any place where there’s no vaccine,” she said. “I think it’s criminal that they don’t have it for other people and I would just do anything to prevent somebody from having to go through what I have. I mean, my mother, if she had the vaccine available, I would have had it in a heartbeat.”

This girl.

As we all celebrate International Day of the Girl (Child) let’s remember that smashing glass ceilings in Western countries is ALL our job. And all well and good. Bravo. Let’s be in that with bells on.

But let us also remember that many of the girl children born into the world are perpetually hungry, don’t get even the most rudimentary education, are virtual slaves at the hands of their fathers and male relatives, and subject to horrific “honour” violence, too. Let us remember that the laws in their lands protect them inadequately, and that they are marginalised and ignored in decision making.

Painting by Amrita Shergil

So let’s not just make this International Day of the Girl who needs equal pay in her cossetted Western society, or who needs to aspire to be a Board Director like her male sibling. Yes, she does. Yes, those things are very important.

But in other societies – societies we do business with, and visit –  the girls would just appreciate pay. Any pay. Any chance for anything beyond the grinding poverty that locks them into a life of walking miles to collect clean water, scrabbling in the rubbish for food, or spending from pre-dawn to late at night engaged on domestic chores and caring for men.

So let’s make this “day” about them, first.

It’s also “Mental Health Day” today.

An ironic juxtaposition in so many ways.

Whilst we focus on the very real needs of everyone who suffers from mental health problems –  and Lord knows we need to do that – let’s also remember that food, shelter, a job, and dignity are the basic building blocks of a happy life.

And we owe it to the world to ensure everyone gets at least a start. A chance.

Because that’s really good for their mental health.

Here are the top 10 toughest places for girls’ education:

  1. South Sudan: the world’s newest country has faced much violence and war, with the destruction of schools and families forced from their homes. Almost three-quarters of girls do not even make it to primary school
  2. Central African Republic: one teacher for every 80 pupils
  3. Niger: only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate
  4. Afghanistan: wide gender gap, with boys more likely to be in school than girls
  5. Chad: many social and economic barriers to girls and women getting education
  6. Mali: only 38% of girls finish primary school
  7. Guinea: the average time in education among women over the age of 25 is less than one year
  8. Burkina Faso: only 1% of girls complete secondary school
  9. Liberia: almost two-thirds of primary-age pupils out of school
  10. Ethiopia: two in five girls are married before the age of 18

A shortage of teachers is a common problem across poorer countries.

Last year, the UN said another 69 million teachers would need to be recruited worldwide by 2030 if international promises on education were to be kept.

Let’s keep our promises. “Girl child” is asking us to.

Alarm as ‘super malaria’ spreads in South East Asia

The rapid spread of “super malaria” in South East Asia is an alarming global threat, scientists are warning.

This dangerous form of the malaria parasite cannot be killed with the main anti-malaria drugs.

It emerged in Cambodia but has since spread through parts of Thailand, Laos and has arrived in southern Vietnam.

The team at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok said there was a real danger of malaria becoming untreatable.

Prof Arjen Dondorp, the head of the malaria unit, told the BBC News website: “We think it is a serious threat.

“It is alarming that this strain is spreading so quickly through the whole region and we fear it can spread further [and eventually] jump to Africa.”

Failing treatments

In a letter, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the researchers detail the “recent sinister development” that has seen resistance to the drug artemisinin emerge.

About 212 million people are infected with malaria each year. It is caused by a parasite that is spread by blood-sucking mosquitoes and is a major killer of children.

The first choice treatment for malaria is artemisinin in combination with piperaquine.

But as artemisinin has become less effective, the parasite has now evolved to resist piperaquine too.

There have now been “alarming rates of failure”, the letter says.

Prof Dondorp said the treatment was failing around a third of the time in Vietnam while in some regions of Cambodia the failure rate was closer to 60%.

Resistance to the drugs would be catastrophic in Africa, where 92% of all malaria cases happen.

‘Against the clock’

There is a push to eliminate malaria in the Greater Mekong sub-region before it is too late.

Prof Dondorp added: “It’s a race against the clock – we have to eliminate it before malaria becomes untreatable again and we see a lot of deaths.

“If I’m honest, I’m quite worried.”

Michael Chew, from the Wellcome Trust medical research charity, said: “The spread of this malaria ‘superbug’ strain, resistant to the most effective drug we have, is alarming and has major implications for public health globally.

“Around 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections, including malaria.

“If nothing is done, this could increase to millions of people every year by 2050.”

We all have friends who trot out the right-wing meme “OK the climate is changing but who can say that climate change is man made? Sure there is scientific consensus, but that’s not proof”.

With one, I tried an explanation, expressed politely. My next step when courtesy fails is always “get out of the way you fucking idiot, the rest of us will try and solve this”. But I thought I’d try courtesy first. It ran thusly:

“Michael, with all due respect, it’s not about scientific consensus versus scientific proof. 

Science is merely a process by which one observes natural events and then seeks to discover the causality behind them. A theory is then advanced to try and satisfy all the enquiries. This is true of all science – not just weather science but geology, ocean studies, ice studies, biology, and so forth. 

Then the theory is tested against predictions – if this is happening, then this should happen next.

That climate change is man made is argued because the FASTEST EVER rise in global temperatures coincides exactly with the beginning of the industrial era. QED it’s the industrialisation of the planet that is causing it. 

If this is happening, then it is predictable that more extreme weather events will happen, more often. Worse snow, longer droughts, more intense rainfall, worse (and more common) hurricanes.

It is also predictable that the oceans will become more acid, and species will become extinct, threatening the food chain.

In other words, a “perfect storm” for humanity, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Which is exactly what is happening, and will continue to happen. That’s why there is scientific consensus. The theory works when examined by all branches of science.”
The other argument that one tries is “Well look at it this way: if the climate change science is real it is very likely disastrous for humanity. If there’s only 1% chance the scientists are right isn’t the prudent thing to address the trend, and see what happens next?”

Then some waffle about economic growth is trotted out. Which is when I say “No jobs on a dead planet” which I once saw scrawled on a freeway bridge and noted. Then I get mildly abusive and log off.