Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

When my mother, God rest her soul, was in her final years in the nursing home, her ninetieth birthday rolled around. She had retreated, at that stage, into a very small world that seemed inappropriate for such a powerful, independent personality. Most afternoons she would be assailed by “Sundowning”, and frequently in tears.

It is now well understood that people with dementia may become more confused, restless or insecure late in the afternoon or early evening. They may become more demanding, restless, upset, suspicious, disoriented and even see, hear or believe things that aren’t real, especially at night. In Mum’s case, she simply became more lonely, despite the efforts of her care staff,

No one is quite sure what causes sundowning, although it seems to result from changes that are occurring in the brain. A person experiencing sundowning may be hungry, uncomfortable, in pain or needing to use the toilet, all of which they can only express through restlessness. As the dementia progresses and they understand less about what is happening around them, they may become more frantic in trying to restore their sense of familiarity or security. Many families and carers say that the person becomes more anxious about ‘going home’ or ‘finding mother’ late in the day which may indicate a need for security and protection. They may be trying to find an environment that is familiar to them, particularly a place that was familiar to them at an earlier time in their life.

On her 90th birthday, Jenie, Caitlin and I visited with a cake, on top of which were candles in the shape of a nine and a zero, a banner that said Happy Birthday, and various other little celebratory items, and the nursing home kindly let us use one of their side rooms for a bit of privacy.

We sang happy birthday, more than once, and she smiled happily, which was really as much as we wanted by way of reaction. Then her mood swung, suddenly.

She kept staring at the cake, and then looking at me, who by now she thought of more often as my father, than me. In fact, I would frequently get reminded to do odd jobs around the family home in Sketty Green in Swansea, where she hadn’t lived for many decades, while she was temporarily in “hospital”. During two confinements, she was hospitalised for long periods. I believe her fading mind now imagined her back in an earlier era, when she was still married to her beloved Stewart, and still master of her own destiny, as a way of coping with the indignity of extreme age.

She shot me glance after glance, a worried look on her face.

“Ninety?” she asked, querulously. Then with more vigour, “Ninety!” And then finally, with some annoyance, “Ninety?”

The mere fact of her great age clearly disagreed, fundamentally, with her view of herself. She steadfastly refused to accept that she could be ninety, so we simply quietly removed the candles, and carried on celebrating her birthday, giving her some of the cake, and having a famously sweet tooth she quickly calmed down and started relaxing again. Wreathed in smiles, and being hugged by her grand-daughter of whom she was so proud, she was soon once again a contented mixture of coquettish child and venerable sage, living once more in the moment.

As I write, I sit looking at the garden that Jenie and I have planted outside our computer room, in our small back yard. It is, to be sure, a work in progress, and what progresses most successfully is Oxalis, tubular rye grass, and Dandelions. Indeed, we have so many Dandelions that I have taken to researching salads using their leaves.

Dandelions are found on all continents of course, and have been gathered for food since prehistory, but the varieties cultivated for consumption are mainly native to Eurasia.

It’s very reliable: the leaves will grow back if the taproot is left intact, which as they are almost impossible to uproot with the bare hands is “usually”. To make leaves more palatable, they are often blanched to remove bitterness, or sauteed in the same way as spinach. Dandelion leaves and buds have been a part of traditional Kashmiri, Slovenian, Sephardic, Chinese, and Korean cuisines. In Crete, the leaves of a variety called ‘Mari’ (Μαρί), ‘Mariaki’ (Μαριάκι), or ‘Koproradiko’ (Κοπροράδικο) are eaten by locals, either raw or boiled, in salads. Dandelion leaves apparently make good tea.

The pretty yellow flowers, along with other ingredients, usually including citrus, are used to make dandelion wine, which I recall is excellent, as dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock. Also, dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry, mostly in salads and sandwiches.

Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, and historically dandelion was prized for a variety of medicinal properties, containing a number of pharmacologically active compounds. It has been used in herbal medicine to treat infections, bile and liver problems, and as a diuretic. Indeed, the English folk name “piss-a-bed” (and indeed the equivalent contemporary French pissenlit) which I still remember from my youth  refers to the strong diuretic effect of the plant’s roots. Rather more stomach-turningly, in various northeastern Italian dialects, the plant is known as pisacan (“dog pisses”), because they are found at the side of pavements.

As I look out of the window now, the oak tree which we planted from an acorn is shedding its leaves in the winter sunshine. They fall as if they are gentle tears for the summer just past. Capturing the sun until it browns them from the inside and they sigh and drop.

Winter this year has been very kind, and it has held onto its leaves for as long as it possibly is able, but they are a riot of browns and yellows now, and in increasing numbers they carpet the garden below, providing useful mulch, and smothering, with luck, a few of the weeds. We are frankly not sure what to call this patch of garden. It is, variously, the Paddock. Or the Meadow. There are vague intents to try to create an English cottage garden. But we look away for an instant, and all the delicate hollyhocks and Love-In-A-Mist and Sweet Williams seem to lose out to hardier entrants like Camomile and Verbena and the Italian Parsley that has spread like wildfire, outdoing in its aggression, if such a thing were possible, the Vietnamese Mint. We may have to re-christen it as the herb garden and be done with it.

In front of my eyes, the endless round of birth, death and renewal is happening in real time.

It is my birthday, tomorrow. And having been born, grown, been to Uni, traveled some, raised a family and done a bit of work, I suddenly and without warning find myself staring down the barrel of 60. It has all gone by in a blink. I have no doubt, on my death-bed, I will rail against the dying of the light – convinced beyond reason that there is something I meant to do if I could only remember what it is – I will regret having not done some things, and regret having done others, but I will not, ultimately, regret all that much. In short, I have seen much, enjoyed most of it, known many inspirational and heart-warming people, built a wonderful business with great partners, and been blessed largely with good health – a stout heart and good lungs, strong limbs and clear eyes. I married the kindest person on the planet and then she gave birth to another like her.

I am losing my hair but not my faculties.

It is enough.

Nevertheless, my newfound right to apply for a Seniors Card comes with something of a profound shock. Somebody said to me the other day, “Cheer up, 60 is the new 50, you know!” “Yes,” I replied tersely, “but it’s not the new f****** 25, is it?”

In my head, I think I will always be 25. Being able to get reduced fees on a local tram does not really compensate for being able to smash through a hard 80 minutes of rugby, and then stay up all night drinking pints of Gales 6X and playing 3-card brag, before popping into work still full of ink but essentially functional.

“Sixty?” “Sixty!’ “Sixty?

My leaves are starting to fall, as they must. I will cling onto them for as long as I can, before giving them up with as much good grace as I can muster, which I doubt will be very much. I don’t expect I will make 90, but I know how she felt. I am very like her, in many ways.

And I think I’ll leave the Dandelions where they are. The last thing you need at 60 is to piss more often.

 

dialogue

 

This blog is a re-purposing of an exchange I just had with a dear friend on Facebook. I know this friend to be a sincere man, who thinks deeply. His identity is irrelevant. The discussion isn’t.

Begins:

But what you don’t seem to appreciate, [name], is that all your bile (or rather the bile in the websites and news services you quote) is aimed at Muslims. I would ask you to consider the following:

>We’re pissed off about being branded a racist when we speak out for what we believe in

No, people are branded racists when they categorise an entire people as being one thing – less intelligent, more violent, more hateful, etc – when clearly that cannot be applied to all the people in that group. Calling out “all Muslims” – or “all Anyone” of course – IS racist, because no one group is homogenous.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught crap at school

Well, you’d have to give me an example. The schools I deal with, judging the Ainger Awards, for example, seem to be turning out very aware, balanced and thoughtful kids, chock full of stuff I never knew. And my daughter, who has had to work very hard, has progressed to doing a PhD in neuroscience from a not-especially-academic Christian school, so I am pretty impressed with that.

Maybe your experience is different. I’m all ears.

>we’re pissed off that our kids are being taught that they can go to whatever toilet they like

Unisex toilets are hardly the barbarians at the gate, and if they make life easier for transgender teenagers I have no problem with them. I find kids today much more respectful of each other’s space than we were. I suspect it’s just a change, and change can be scary. I haven’t heard a single case of it causing a problem, here or anywhere – but I have heard plenty of middle aged people going volcanic about it.

>communities are dropping Christmas celebrations

Certainly not in Melbourne. Carols by Candlelight was great this year. Are you sure this is happening, or have you heard of one or two nutjobs going on about it, and beat it up into a “thing”?

PS Muslims think Christ was a holy man, too. Our neighbours gave us a lovely card and a generous gift this year.

>we’re pissed off that Muslim only housing estates are being built in Australia

Why? If people want to live together, let them. We have Chinese retirement homes in Doncaster – the fabric of society seems remarkably unchallenged. We have had Jewish-only schools, homes and – frankly – suburbs for decades. No one cares less. Are you just afraid of something of which you have no real experience?

>we’re pissed off because Anzac Day marches have to be cancelled because RSL clubs can’t afford the extra security due to threat of terror attacks

Here we can agree totally. But you also need to remember that we have had as many terror incidents from bikie gangs and the far right Nazis in Australia as we have had from Muslims. Beating up fear about a virtually unheard of event – a terrorist attack in Australia – only serves to make people anxious. Sure, anything can happen, but the fact is we are a very long way from everywhere, and 99.99999% recurring of our population are law abiding and peaceful. Certainly as regards politics and religion. I know a few bookies who should be inside …

>we’re pissed off because every time we become part of a large crowd we’re looking over our shoulder

Yes, yes, yes – but I have to be frank with you, this has been going on pretty much since the beginning of society. Sadly, there is always someone ready to throw a bomb or lash out with a gun or a sword, and right now most of them are from extremist minority sects of Islam. But it wasn’t long ago, for example, that the world was just as transfixed by the activities of the Baader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigades (some of whose attacks were CIA-led false flag attacks, by the way), the Fenians chucked grenades and bombs around willy nilly for about 150 years in the UK, anarchists started World War 1, etc etc.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.” Whilst what is happening know is horrible, and deplorable and indefensible, it isn’t actually all that different to centuries of conflict. If you want it to stop, find peaceful solutions, rather than pretending there is some new great conspiracy threatening your tea and toast.

I will say this – the main problem with Islamic extremism at the moment is the conflict between Shia and Sunni, which has been going on for hundreds of years, and the only reason we even know about it is because we have interpolated ourselves into their countries in a most aggressive and colonial way, instead of leaving the Arabs and the Persians to sort it out themselves. We made ourselves sitting ducks by insanities like invading Iraq when we had no clear reason why – except to secure oil supplies, as Alexander Downer admitted – absolutely predictably de-stabilising the entire region – and NOT intervening when the majority of the Syrian population asked us to, to get rid of the brutal Assad regime, because we were so burned by our own idiocy in Iraq.

In Iraq alone, over 500,000 civilians have died, 100% because of the instability caused by OUR actions, if not necessarily by our direct actions.

We let our politicians do that.

22 died in Manchester. Which breaks my heart. And I condemn it utterly. But think about it. Think about the half a million in Iraq alone. Think about the four million displaced from Syria. Can you understand why some people, not me, at all, but some people, don’t understand why we feel so threatened, compared to them?

Saffie, we don’t know what to do to remember you
Saffie, we don’t know what to do to remember
Saffie, we don’t know what to do
Saffie, we don’t know

Saffie.

[                                        ]

Later reporting: MANCHESTER FIRST RESPONDER TELLS OF MOMENT HE FOUND YOUNGEST VICTIM SAFFIE ROUSSOS

A first responder to the Manchester Arena suicide attack has told of how an eight-year-old girl had called out for her mum as she lay in his arms during her dying moments.

Paul Reid, 43, had tried to reassure Saffie Rose Roussos that everything would be OK as he waited with her while help arrived, during the horrific attack aftermath.

Speaking with The Sun, Mr Reid said he tried to look for the terrorist after he heard a bomb at the end of the Ariana Grande concert on Monday.

Paul Reid was a first responder at the scene of the Manchester Arena suicide bombing. Photo: BBC

Mr Reid instead rushed to comfort those who he had found injury, laying on the concert hall floor.

One of those was little Saffie, who he wrapped in his coat, before helping her onto a stretcher. It wasn’t until the next day that Mr Reid learnt the little girl he tried to save had died in hospital from her injuries.

Saffie was the youngest of the 22 killed in the attack.

“She was a dying little girl and she just wanted her mum. It was devastating,” Mr Reid said, in tears.

Mr Reid, also a father, had been at the concert and was one of the first to contact emergency services after Salman Abedi blew himself up.

“The concert was just about to end and I was at the bottom of the stairs at the main exit. Then I just heard a boom. I could see dust, smoke and stuff flying around,” he said. “I ran back up the stairs and I was actually looking for a terrorist. I knew it had been a bomb.

Mr Reid was reduced to tears as he spoke of Saffie, who he found a few feet away.
“She was trembling all over,” he said. “I saw the little girl was conscious and I said, ‘What’s your name?’

“I thought she said Sophie. When I asked her how old she was she said she was eight.

“I wanted to keep her talking and asked her if she had enjoyed the concert but then I realised she was having difficulty breathing.

“She said, ‘Where’s my mum?’ I said to her, ‘I don’t know but we are going to find her in a minute. Don’t worry. We are going to sort it out. You are going to be all right’.

Tributes in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack on Monday night. Photo: AAP

“The girl kept trying to fall asleep but I knew I had to keep her awake and conscious. I was stroking her face and saying, ‘Come on Sophie stay awake. You’re going to be all right. They are coming to take you away in a minute.’

“But she kept drifting into unconsciousness. I cannot bear to think about it. Then she started shivering and told me she felt cold. I took my coat off and put it over her but she was still shaking a bit.

“Once we got outside one of the police flags down an ambulance. We gently put her in and she is still alive with her eyes open. That’s the last time I saw her.”

“I only knew her for a few minutes but I will never forget her,” he said of Saffie.

None of us will ever forget you, Saffie.

Chuck a couple of these in tonight’s chicken curry and you’ll know all about it!

 

Hot chilli peppers have the best names. They sound dangerous and vaguely threatening. A warning for those stupid enough to actually try and eat one, if you will. “It’s not like we didn’t warn you,” they seem to say.

The previous record-holder for hottest chilli in the world, the ominous-sounding Carolina Reaper, has had to officially move aside to make way for the aptly monikered Dragon’s Breath chilli – a chilli so hot no one has actually eaten it yet, for fear it could kill you. How? By literally burning your airways, as if you were breathing fire.

Rather charmingly, the creator of this spicy beast didn’t even set out to break records. Mike Smith, a fruit grower and competitive show-gardener from Denbighshire in Wales, was aiming for an aesthetically pleasing chilli tree to enter into the UK’s famous Chelsea Flower Show, where it is now in the running for Plant of the Year.

“It was a complete accident but I’m chuffed to bits – it’s a lovely looking tree,” Mr Smith told the Telegraph.

The chilli was, however, grown in collaboration with scientists from Nottingham Trent University, who are interested in the medicinal use of chilis as an anaesthetic. It was they who verified that the Dragon’s Breath scored the highest rating ever recorded on the Scoville heat scale, 2.48 million, beating the wimpy rival Reaper, which measures just 2.2 million.

The Scoville scale measures the intensity of heat in units. The 2.48 million Scoville heat units (SHU) means that one drop of oil from this chili can be detected in 2.48 million drops of water, making it basically weapons-grade hot. For comparison, pepper spray used by the US Army is 2 million SHU.

Photo published for St Asaph man develops weapons-grade chili so hot it could KILL

Nasty looking little bugger.

The scientists believe that if you tried to actually eat this chilli, your airways would likely close up from the burn and you’d go into anaphylactic shock and die. Nice. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t maybe a force for good, not evil.

The capsaicin oil from it is so potent it numbs the skin, giving it excellent potential as an anesthetic, especially for those allergic to painkillers, or even for use in developing countries where access to and funding for anesthetics is limited.

Chili peppers actually have a long history of medical value, from calming the gut’s immune system to helping you live longer. Just don’t eat this one.

“I’ve tried it on the tip of my tongue and it just burned and burned,” Smith said. “I spat it out in about 10 seconds. The heat intensity just grows.”

Farmer Mike is currently waiting for the Guinness World Records to verify his world champion, but in the meantime, if anyone offers it to you in the pub for a bet, we’d err on the side of caution and just say no.

Dora as Picasso saw her.

Dora Maar – Picasso’s muse.

One of Pablo Picasso’s best-known portraits has been sold at auction in New York for US$45m (£35m).

Femme Assise, Robe Bleu (Seated Woman in Blue Dress) features one of his many lovers, Dora Maar.

During World War Two, the Nazis seized the painting but were intercepted on their way from Paris to Moravia by French Resistance fighters.

In 2015, Picasso’s Women of Algiers sold for $179m at Christie’s – a record for any picture sold at auction.

Seated Woman went to a US collector and six years ago it was sold for $26m. So it is close to doubling in value in six years. 15% or so per annum. Not bad!

Dora Maar and Picasso had an intense relationship for nine years. He painted Seated Woman in 1939, when he was 58 and she was 31.

It is one of the great Picasso portraits of his middle years, inspired – as so often, according to BBC Arts correspondent, Vincent Dowd – by love and by powerful sexual desire.

Or, alternatively, he was taking the piss. What do you think, Dear Reader?

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 10.58.58 am

World-renowned and much-loved Australian satirist John Clarke has died suddenly at the age of 68.

Known and hugely appreciated for his regular appearances with Brian Dawe on the ABC, puncturing the double talk and pomposity of politicians of all kinds, Clarke is believed to have died from natural causes while hiking in the Grampians mountains.

He will be terribly sadly missed, by his many fans, and the body politic more widely. This well-known excerpt displays Clarke in full flight, demonstrating his superb comic timing.

Here’s Clarke brilliantly channelling “Treasurer Scott Morrison” on the coming Budget, just five days ago.

He was also the brains behind the genius that was “The Games”. Still the funniest show about the nonsense of government and quasi-government activity ever made.

Do yourself a favour:

John Clarke has been farewelled today with innumerable heartfelt messages from his fellow performers and, uniquely perhaps, from the political sphere that he pinioned so caustically, and yet, somehow, so affectionately too. It was obvious from the twinkle in his eye and his ineffable timing that this was a gentleman, perpetually at the top of his game. He never resorted to nastiness. He didn’t have to.

Genius is definitely not too strong a term.

Recently, Dear Reader, we have been pondering the matter of free speech.

Specifically, should it be absolute? Anyone able to say anything they like, unrestrained by the law.

We are referring, of course, to the Western world. It is clear that in authoritarian regimes the world over nothing like “free speech” exists, or ever has. But as we argue that liberal democracy is the best form of government to adopt, no matter who or where you are, it is surely fair to ask – sensible, indeed – to ask whether all the shibboleths of free speech are, in fact, practically defensible.

One of the key schism lines in world opinion is around the concept of “Criminal Defamation”, where the expression of an opinion is taken to damage a Government, and therefore put the civil peace at risk. What are (or should be) the rights of the state in seeking to restrain comment that can be considered injurious to the whole.

(This is not the same as Civil Defamation, where an individual has a a right to sue another individual (or corporation) for saying or printing something about them that they consider to be both untrue and harmful of their reputation, causing loss. No one seriously argues that Civil Defamation should be abolished – although the bar is set so high in the United States, for example, that defamation laws are essentially unenforceable, with predictable consequences.)

With Criminal Defamation, ironically, Great Britain, the country which bequeathed the infamous legacy of criminal defamation to states like India, where it is currently being heatedly debated, abolished the law in 2009.

Such laws are believed to date back to the early 17th century, when the invention of the printing press enabled political writings to be circulated far and wide easily and inexpensively through pamphlets, thus broadening the scope of public debate. The Court of the Star Chamber (the English court of law from the late fifteenth to mid-seventeenth century), fearing that criticisms against the royal authority, regardless of their truthfulness, may disturb public peace, began charging the critics with the criminal offence of “seditious libel”.

Evidently, a kind of faux civil peace, resulting from the English citizenry’s ignorance of their State’s corruption, was preferred over the knowledge of truth because any exposure could have potentially led to the downfall of the government. This perhaps explains the origin of the well-known adage, “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.”

Not surprisingly, famous England-American political theorist Thomas Paine, who helped inspire the American Revolution, was also charged with seditious libel in England because of his insistence on the right of the citizens to overthrow the government in the second part of his work Rights of Man. Even though Paine would have been happy with the fact that seditious libel was finally abolished in England, such laws continue to thrive to this day in many countries, and even in some democracies.

Indian law, for example, provides for imprisonment to anyone “who brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India”. This law was enacted by the British to keep the Indian freedom movement in check. Not surprisingly, both Bal Gangadhar Tilak and MK Gandhi were charged with sedition, arrested, and jailed for six years and two years respectively. Like the pigs taking over the farm in the novel 1984, the incoming Indian authorities duly left the laws on the books.

But isn’t it reasonable to disallow unfettered free speech is the result is the overthrow of a peaceful, beneficial state? The answer, of course, is that the question is a fallacy. In a democracy, the government’s behaviour should withstand any such scrutiny in the “court of public opinion”, and if it does not, well, essentially the Government does not deserve to survive. Even if the change of Government may be painful. Truth, here, is elevated above social discord, and few would argue, for example, that a corrupt or inept Government should not be subject to completely free criticism.

The problem is that the view of what constitutes a “peaceful, beneficial state” can vary widely. Just as someone may consider a Government corrupt or inept, but another may not, even when presented with the same evidence. This is before we even get into utilitarian considerations such as “the Government may be corrupt, but it’s helping a lot of people and things are going pretty well, so let’s all pretend it isn’t corrupt and leave things be”. That’s the pertaining situation throughout much of Asia currently, for example.

Currently Governments around the world are reserving the right to restrict free speech where that speech is designed to overthrow their rule by violent means. But from a libertarian point of view, this can be problematical. Many would argue it should be illegal to say “Government A is evil, so go and get a gun and shoot someone, in pursuit of overthrowing the Government”.

But should it be equally illegal to say “Government A is evil, in my view it is morally justified for someone to get a gun and shoot someone, in pursuit of overthrowing the Government”?

The difference is the width of a butterfly’s wing, but it could be argued that the latter is legitimate comment – a bona fide intellectual opinion – whilst the other is incitement to murder. Yet the latter will today get you just as locked up just as quickly in many Western democracies as would the more direct statement. The argument employed here is that the fractionally milder comment might have exactly the same effect of encouraging violent action, and therefore seeking to discern a difference is mere semantics, especially if the Government’s primary goal is to preserve its status and prevent violence.

Where the line is drawn in such matters is an on-going debate.

How, for example, does one parse the case of Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning), the American soldier of Wikileaks fame, who dumped vast amounts of classified information onto the world stage in pursuit of his belief that the public had a right to know what was being done – often illegally – in their name.

Manning languished in a dire mental condition in an American military prison – arguably the subject of ongoing mental torture from the authorities – for telling the world … what? That American helicopter gunships were cheerfully slaughtering Reuters journalists and innocent civilians on the ground through hopelessly loose rules of engagement? Or that world leaders say one thing to each other’s faces, and another to their advisors, and yet another to the public? What part of what Manning revealed – do people think they were either too stupid or too irresponsible to be told – which resulted in no harm to anyone, you will recall, as confirmed by the CIA –  whether they were told by Wikileaks or by the newspapers round the world who gleefully re-reported the treasure trove of documents.

The incident was hugely embarrassing for many Governments, to be sure, but was it truly harmful? And why was Manning not protected by concepts of free speech? By all means argue that he contravened the rules of his military service (which is what he is technically being punished for) but should he have, if we believe what we say about free speech being sacrosanct, actually have been praised? Feted, even?

Why was he banged up in solitary when the journalists who re-reported him are free to pursue their careers, and the media barons free to bank their profits?

What led us to this pondering?

Yesterday, on radio in Melbourne, a “One Nation” Senator, recently elected in Queensland through the vagaries and lunacies of Australia’s Senate voting system, was given free range to spout his ludicrous theories that the United Nations were trying to impose “One World Government” on the planet through fear mongering on man-made climate change, change which wasn’t happening. That there was no empirical evidence that CO2 was causing global warming, or that if we scrapped all human fossil fuel emissions overnight it would make any difference to the state of the planet at all.

Mr Roberts has apparently also written numerous reports claiming climate change is an international conspiracy fostered by the United Nations and international banks to impose a socialist world order. According to the Sydney Morning Herald at least one report cites several anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, including notorious Holocaust denier Eustace Mullins among its “primary references”.

According to the SMH Mr Roberts, who used to work in the arch-polluting coal industry, also sent a bizarre affidavit to then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2011 demanding to be exempt from the carbon tax and using language consistent with the “sovereign citizen” movement.

Anti-government, self-identified “sovereign citizens” claim to exist outside the country’s legal and taxation systems and frequently believe the government uses grammar to enslave its citizens.

NSW Police say such people “should be considered a potential terrorist threat”.

In an affidavit he sent to Ms Gillard in 2011, Mr Roberts identified himself as “Malcolm-Ieuan: Roberts., the living soul”, representing a corporate entity he termed MALCOLM IEUAN ROBERTS.

In the document, Mr Roberts demanded to be exempted from the carbon tax and compensated to the tune of $280,000 if Ms Gillard did not provide “full and accurate disclosure” in relation to 28 points explaining why he should not be liable for the tax.

Mr Roberts addressed the affidavit to “The Woman, Julia-Eileen: Gillard., acting as The Honourable JULIA EILEEN GILLARD” and presented her with a detailed contract he expected her to sign.

That stylisation of names is said to be commonly used by “sovereign citizens” who believe the use of hyphens and colons is a way to evade governments’ use of grammar to enslave their citizens. Roberts has recently confirmed that he wrote the affidavit, but has stated that he is not a ‘sovereign citizen’.

The new Senator, who received 77 below-the-line first preference votes, will take his Senate seat on August 30 and will receive a taxpayer-funded base salary of $199,040, plus staff and entitlements.

The price of free speech is often very high indeed.

But the biggest price we pay is not monetary. It is seeing our public institutions – our broadcasters, and Parliaments – invaded by rogues, charlatans, and the frankly deluded, spouting theories that seek to mislead and derail intelligent debate under the guise of promoting “truth”.

 

roach

 

A 42-year-old Indian woman was in deep slumber last Tuesday night until she awoke around midnight to a “tingling, crawling sensation” in her right nostril.

At first, the woman, a domestic worker named Selvi, brushed the feeling off, assuming she might be catching a cold, the Times of India reported. But she soon felt something move.

She spent the rest of the night in discomfort, waiting for the sun to rise so she could go to the hospital.

“I could not explain the feeling but I was sure it was some insect,” she told the New Indian Express. “Whenever it moved, it gave me a burning sensation in my eyes.”

As dawn arrived, with her son-in-law in tow, the woman visited the clinic closest to her home in Injambakkam, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Finally, in her fourth doctor visit — at Stanley Medical College Hospital — doctors used an endoscope to find the culprit: a blob with a pair of antennae.

“It was a full grown cockroach,” M.N. Shankar, the head of the ear, nose and throat department, told the Times of India. “It was alive. And it didn’t seem to want to come out.”

The insect was sitting in the skull base, between the eyes and close to the brain, Shankar said.

Doctors first tried to use a suction device to remove the cockroach, but the insect clung to the tissues. After a 45-minute process, using suction and forceps, doctors were able to extract the bug, still alive.

Because of the critter’s location, doctors had to first drag it to a place from which it could be extracted. It had been lodged inside for about 12 hours, the Times of India reported.

“If left inside, it would have died before long and the patient would have developed infection, which would have spread to the brain,” Shankar added.

Shankar said this was the “first such case” he has seen in his three decades of practice, the New India Express reported. In the past, the hospital’s ENT department has removed a leach, houseflies, and maggots from patients’ nasal cavities. “But not a cockroach, said S Muthuchitra, one of the doctors, “especially not one this large.”

This is by no means the first time a cockroach has crawled and nestled into a human body. A 1994 story in The Washington Post described a similar local case involving a one-inch cockroach that crawled into a George Washington University graduate student’s ear.

Shannelle Armstrong, the student, woke up screaming before dawn with a piercing pain in her left ear. She was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, where doctors flushed out the live cockroach.

One ear specialist quoted in the story said hospital doctors are sometimes called upon to remove different kinds of bugs from patients’ ears, especially in the summer. In urban areas, he said, roaches are the most common.

The graduate student’s medical report added the following advice: “Consider sleeping with hat on.”

So … the other night, Dear Reader, a cockroach climbed onto our hand in bed, causing a big yelp, a hurried leap out of bed, and frantic smashing with a slipper.

And then the other day, Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink popped her bathrobe on which had been drying on the washing line, and found a cockroach inside.

Thinking we may invest in a few cans of whatever passes for industrial-strength DDT nowadays.

Interestingly, cokroaches are much more sophisticated than we might imagine.

Collective decision-making

Gregarious cockroaches display collective decision-making when choosing food sources. When a sufficient number of individuals (a “quorum”) exploits a food source, this signals to newcomer cockroaches that they should stay there longer rather than leave for elsewhere. Other mathematical models have been developed to explain aggregation dynamics and conspecific recognition.

Group-based decision-making is responsible for complex behaviours such as resource allocation. In a study where 50 cockroaches were placed in a dish with three shelters with a capacity for 40 insects in each, the insects arranged themselves in two shelters with 25 insects in each, leaving the third shelter empty. When the capacity of the shelters was increased to more than 50 insects per shelter, all of the cockroaches arranged themselves in one shelter. Cooperation and competition are balanced in cockroach group decision-making behavior.

Cockroaches appear to use just two pieces of information to decide where to go, namely how dark it is and how many other cockroaches there are. A study used specially-scented roach-sized robots that appear to the roaches as real to demonstrate that once there are enough insects in a place to form a critical mass, the roaches accepted the collective decision on where to hide, even if this was an unusually light place.

Social behavior

Gregarious German cockroaches show different behaviour when reared in isolation from when reared in a group. In one study, isolated cockroaches were less likely to leave their shelters and explore, spent less time eating, interacted less with conspecifics when exposed to them, and took longer to recognise receptive females. Because these changes occurred in many contexts, the authors suggested them as constituting a behavioural syndrome. These effects might have been due either to reduced metabolic and developmental rates in isolated individuals or the fact that the isolated individuals hadn’t had a training period to learn about what others were like via their antennae.

But frankly, we don’t give a sh*t. They could be insect Einsteins. They ain’t coming anywhere near our ears.

Dear President Trump

Congratulations on your election. We never supported your run for office, and we were frankly somewhat dismayed that it succeeded, as the trend in politics that you represent is far removed from our view of the world.

But we have to put that aside now. You’re in. And we have to work with you.

Of course we wish you well. The world needs a strong and successful America. You are still the locomotive at the front of the train that is the world’s economy. Or at the very least, one of the locomotives.

You are still the home of much of the most fortuitous innovations that will help us manage and preserve civilisation and the world. We need you to do well, which is why even those who oppose your brand of politics wish you success. Who knows? You may surprise us all.

But in saying that, Mr President, we have a problem.

It seems to us that a lot of what you’re saying simply doesn’t make sense. So we have some questions for you, which we hope you feel able to answer.

Your new White House website says the following:

The Trump Administration is committed to a foreign policy focused on American interests and American national security.

Peace through strength will be at the centre of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.

Honestly, this strikes us as short-sighted.

 

Free the shit out of you

Whilst we understand that you need to protect American interests, “peace through strength” just sounds to the rest of us like “if we’re big enough and ugly enough to make you do what we say, we’ll get along just fine”. Or in other words, more of everything that has managed to piss the rest of the world off about America on regular occasions since WWII.

There’s every chance that this type of attitude won’t result in a more stable or peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground, but possibly the very opposite. More chances for your country and others to rub each other up the wrong way, to create distrust about your motives, and to lead to more conflict, not less.

Next, we will rebuild the American military. Our Navy has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 275 in 2016. Our Air Force is roughly one third smaller than in 1991. President Trump is committed to reversing this trend, because he knows that our military dominance must be unquestioned.

“Military dominance”? There you go again. But hang on a minute here, yes, you might have retired some ageing ships and aircraft – replacing them with better ones – but you still spend as much on defence as the NEXT TEN countries in defence spending in the world PUT TOGETHER.

So, Donald, if you don’t have military dominance now, we strongly urge you to look more closely at how you’re spending your trillions. Because you should be far and away the most powerful country in the world already.

And you are, of course.

You know that. Everyone knows that.

So what’s an increase in military spending really all about?

0053_defense-comparison-full

You know, since Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex in the first place, we have seen the taxes of Americans and the profits from American trade ploughed into a vast, bloated military, making some American corporations richer than Croesus. Is America really safer, as a result, or are just a bunch of banks and Wall Street types much richer?

Also, you said:

Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.

See: we’re not awfully sure what you’re getting at here. Sure, it sounds good, but honestly, what has the world been trying to do for more than a decade now? We’ve all been busy cutting off funding, expanding intelligence sharing, engaging in cyberwarfare and all the rest of it.

So the only thing that’s really different here is pursuing aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary.

 

Iraqi dead child is prepared for burial

A violently killed young Iraqi girl is prepared for burial. The photograph originally appeared at Salon.com some years ago.

 

It might be an idea to explain what that really means. See, we’ve just seen America endlessly tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq for what seems like forever. Apart from American losses, civilian losses in Iraq alone are up to about 600,000 and counting. We’re certainly not doing a great job of bringing enduring freedom to the Iraqi people, are we? And we’re getting out of Afghanistan with our butts kicked, and the probability that we will have achieved nothing very much at all. Honestly, we don’t really think the American public has the stomach for much more of that, do you?

So how about an alternative idea?

Sooner or later – and this is a very simple thought, but we encourage you to consider it carefully – the West is going to have to accommodate itself to an Islamic world with some very different agendas to ours, and different rules. As Churchill said, “Jaw Jaw is always better than War War”.

It would be hard to imagine more implacable enemies in the Cold War period than Russia and America – the titanic, historic struggle between state socialism and capitalism. And yet, ultimately, it was talking that wound back the tension levels, and created opportunities for both sides. Many, many more people died in the proxy wars fought to promulgate the cold war than have died in conflicts between Islam and the West. Yet we managed to talk our way to a better place.

So who in the Islamic world are you going to talk to, to try and bring some conclusion to the current conflicts? Yes, we know there’s no point talking to the leaders of IS, but they are only a very small part of the problem, and frankly most of the Islamic world hates them as much as you do. So where in your world view is the great West-Islam dialogue that must, inevitably, be the real solution to the problems we now face? What’s the plan? A few words about embracing diplomacy doesn’t really cut it, Donald. Would you care to be more specific?

Now. Trade.

Your website says:

For too long, Americans have been forced to accept trade deals that put the interests of insiders and the Washington elite over the hard-working men and women of this country. As a result, blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close and good-paying jobs move overseas, while Americans face a mounting trade deficit and a devastated manufacturing base.

Forgive us, Sir, but trade deals are not why blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close. Nor why America has a trade deficit. Nor why your manufacturing base is devastated.

All these things have happened because the American people have been sold a dream of an endlessly expanding consumer paradise with everything one could need for a modern lifestyle provided ever more cheaply, whether it’s cars or phones, or TVs, or white goods, or clothes.

 

china

And overseas – especially, but not exclusively, in Asia – clever, determined people produce those things at a fraction of a cost to them being produced in America. That’s why some of your very own private businesses manufacture over there, right?

So, Sir, the only way you can protect those all rust-belt manufacturers is either to forbid people from buying cheap consumer goods from overseas (good luck with that project) or by slapping tariffs on goods made overseas. That’s what your policy really means. And as soon as you do that, the countries currently supplying you will simply do the same to you, so the things you ARE selling into those countries (less and less already, as you know) will be priced out of their markets. (And the growing middle class in China and India and other such places will simply buy their own products. After all, they’re just as good. That’s why your own population buys them so enthusiastically.)

It’s called a trade war, Mr President. And like some other wars we could mention, it’s a war you can’t win.

Or we suppose you could try and persuade American workers to accept much lower pay and conditions. Somehow we don’t think you’re going to attempt that.

Sure, you can try and re-negotiate trade deals, but who’s to say anyone is going to want to negotiate with you? When you stand on the steps of the Capitol and call out “America First” like some sort of mantra, don’t you realise that what the rest of us hear is “And you guys second. Or last. Or nowhere. We really don’t care.”?

If you don’t believe us, can we suggest you watch this video from Holland? It’s not only very funny, but it explains the problem better than we can.

You see, if the success of a trade deal is no longer to be a quid pro quo – as the Jews say, “leaving a little something in the deal for everyone” – then can you explain, please, why you think anyone is going to want to negotiate with you?

Sir, the ONLY solution to America’s economic decline is to work harder, and more innovatively. To produce things that the rest of the world hasn’t worked out how to make yet, and to continue to produce those things at the lowest feasible cost until everyone else catches up, and then to repeat the process. Endlessly. That is your only defence against the new Tigers, wherever they are.

But we don’t hear anything about that from you.

Instead, for example, when the world is desperate for new, non-fossil fuel energy sources, smarter batteries, new power transmission technologies and all the rest, what do you offer us?

A huge increase in fracking and coal consumption. Have you walked down the streets in Beijing and Mumbai recently? Why would you want to visit more pollution on the people of the USA?

 

The inevitable result of an economy based on coal-fired energy. If we're wrong, please tell us why.

The inevitable result of an economy based on coal-fired energy. If we’re wrong, please tell us why.

And you say:

Lastly, our need for energy must go hand-in-hand with responsible stewardship of the environment. Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority. President Trump will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water.

But Mr President, even with “clean coal” technology (assuming it can be successfully developed, at a reasonable price, which is still highly uncertain) and even with the most careful rules over fracking, you can’t protect the water and air of the United States no matter how hard you try. And your statement completely ignores the effect on the climate of burning more and more fossil fuels.

Even if you don’t think climate change is man made, or entirely man made, or whatever your position is this week, surely you must appreciate that expanding fossil fuel production is taking a vastly greater risk with the environment that we don’t need to take? Renewable energy sources are now more than capable of taking up the slack, as Europe is demonstrating successfully in an incredibly short timescale.

If climate change disrupts American agriculture, the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

If climate change means Americans cannot live in safety in the forests, deserts, or coastal plains that they live in now, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence. In lives, and in dollars.

If climate change alters the make-up of the oceans so that fish stocks migrate away from your shores, or disappear altogether, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

If climate change increases the severity of weather events – hot and cold – across your nation, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

See, Mr President, this is our real problem. It seems to us that you must know all these things. You are clearly an intelligent and ambitious man. You surround yourself with bright people.

Yet despite the fact that you must know better, you are simply not levelling with the American people, or the world, about the depth and the scale of the problems in trade, manufacturing, energy, and defence.

We could keep writing on and on about other areas of your program, but that doesn’t seem fair.

Lord knows, there’s more than enough here to be going on with.

So, Sir, we respectfully invite you to address the questions we have for you. We’re genuinely interested to know what you think.

Or if it’s all just politics – if it’s all just a con, playing to the gallery, shoring up a base of domestic support, then why not admit it? As you have said, it doesn’t seem to matter what you say and do, they’re gonna love you anyway. But the rest of us would really like to know what you’re on about, because from over here, it simply doesn’t make any sense.

At all. Not even a bit.

Yours sincerely

The World

We were recently enjoying reading a discussion of Koan on Huffington Post, those unique Zen buddhist stories that deliberately leave the mind searching for meaning and discernment. We were prompted to do so by the observation of a reviewer that Scorsese’s latest film – Silence – is not a parable, but a koan. Never having heard the word before, we beetled off in search of enlightenment.

Anyhow, a bunch of practitioners of Zen were asked their favourites, and this one stood out for us over here at the Wellthisiswhatithink temple.

Koshin Paley Ellison
Co-Founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care

Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.

That fascinating little snippet was attended by this work, entitled “Mumon’s Poem”:

Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realisation.
If you know at once candlelight is fire,
The meal has long been cooked.

The Gateless Gate

Ellison’s discussion of the koan was instructive:

“I love this koan. I am the student in the midst of my life, waiting for life to happen. I am the teacher pointing to this latte on my desk. I am the bowl that needs washing and the breakfast already eaten.

How do we enter our life fully? It is right here. How do we want to live? Can we allow all the joys and sorrows to enliven us? Or do we just go along with all our patterns and habits?

People who are dying always remind me: ‘I can’t believe I wasn’t here for most of my life.’ That’s one of the most common things I hear, and the biggest regrets.

Many people have not inhabited their life because they’re just waiting for other moments. Are we waiting for life to happen in the midst of life? How can we give ourselves fully to our lives, moment to moment? Don’t wait. Life is always right here.”

empty-rice-bowl1

That is powerful ju-ju right there.

The comment ‘I can’t believe I wasn’t here for most of my life’ stuck us very forcefully. We can all find it easy to be distracted, both by the immediacy of what is going on around us, our “worries” and “cares”, and also by our hopes for the future. As John Lennon once put it, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

We left the reading full of determination to live more in the now.

To value each moment – every single moment – as being full, valuable, with purpose.

Not purpose to do something, or even to prepare for something, just full, in and of itself.

As we write, a desk fan blows cooling air onto us on a hot day. Listening to the world around, we become aware of music we were not consciously listening to, and of birds singing outside. Calm descends. It was always there, this calm, but we were ignoring it, choosing a busy – and ineffectively busy – mind, instead.

Wash your bowls.

woman

 

For 200 years. No, 400. Make that a round 700.
She has walked this street.
The same small, bent woman.
Separated from herself only by the inconvenience of birth and death.
She wears black. Her husband died decades back.
Lost at sea. Killed by the Turks. Hanged for thieving.
Shot by the Nazis. A cigarette heart attack.
And still she walks. Up and down.
Back and forth on this one long endless street.
To the tomatoes.
To the salt cod.
To the rooms she cleans for pennies.
And then home.
Hello to a friend in her window.
To the quiet room, and quiet dignity.
At the end of her street, at last.
For another 200 years. No, 400.
Make that forever.

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Save

Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best, Dear Reader

Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best.

You find us on our occasional travels this bright autumn day, Dear Reader, this time to Italy again, to see the immortal Southampton Football Club scale the tobacco-smoke-filled heights of Inter Milan at the San Siro Stadium. Which lofty ambition was thwarted by our customary inability to score from a hatful of golden chances, while Inter Milan scored from their only shot on goal of the game, much of which they spent with eleven men behind the ball and employing every niggly, nasty, time-wasting tactic imaginable, which makes their baby-snatching victory all the more galling, but heigh ho, that’s football. And anyway, what can you expect from a game administered by an obviously blind namby-pamby incompetent fool of a referee, played against a bunch of [insert nakedly inappropriate insults here], who have made a virtue of winning by playing so badly the other team subsides in a heap of confusion and frustration. Bah, humbug and curses to youse all.

We would not use our precious leave to re-visit a country we have explored before, in reality, were it not for the precious nexus of European football and a bunch of good mates traveling to see the game, but Italy is one of those wonderful, shambolic, loveable, infuriating experiences that makes a return trip enjoyable under any circumstances.

If one can ever get there, that is.

Having left home 36 hours before one finally schlepped up to our Milan hotel bedroom, one could be forgiven for thinking the Arab states have got it right and it is, per se, perfectly appropriate to cut the hands off whichever idiot air bridge operator crashed their charge into the side of our plane, thus occasioning all of us to get off again and spent an uncomfortable few hours inside Dubai terminal C waiting for a new one to complete the hop to Milano. Or whatever it is they do to ground crew who mistake their handling of what must be the slowest vehicular transport known to man for racing their new Mercedes and proceed to crash it into a $250 million Airbus, leaving an unsafe dent in the fuselage. “So sorry, Effendi, I just didn’t see it there.” Yes, medieval torture has its place in modern jurisprudence, especially when its 40+ degrees outside and your credit card isn’t working any more than the airport air-conditioning so you can’t even indulge in an iced Starbucks as you disappear into a puddle on the immaculately scrubbed floor. Even the mid-day call to prayer over the loudspeakers fails to lift our spirits. If Allah existed surely he wouldn’t let bad things happen to good people, right?

Milan is, of course, the jewel in the crown of northern Italy, home to fashion and fashonistas, and wandering its streets waiting for the game to start it is hard not to be struck by the fact that everyone is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful. The women are beautiful – effortlessly, so, with their immaculate coiffure and laughing eyes, high on life. The men are beautiful – boldly so, with their perfectly cut clothes in impossible, improbable colours. There is an air of stylish self-confidence evident everywhere. The short fat people are beautiful. The tall skinny ones are beautiful. Beauty is ageless – the retired indulge the autumn of their lives by dressing in designer fashions that actively defy death and wrinkles. Even the homeless guy pushing a trolley does it with a certain panache as he greets the street vendors who know him. The African migrants trying to sell useless tatt table-to-table in the piazza have adopted their hosts’ insouciant air of belonging, and the street-mime working the restaurants for tips is genuinely funny in a knowing, mocking manner. This is a city high on art culture, so that performance permeates its very fabric. Performance is the core standard. Everyone has an eye on everyone, and knows for sure that everyone’s eyes are on them. It is, frankly, as invigorating as it is scary. So one pulls in one’s belly fat and smiles at the impossibly gorgeous girl at the next table with what you hope is an appropriate devil-may-care atteggiamento. To your astonishment, she flashes you a warming smile back that would melt a Milanese gelato at a dozen paces. This stuff really works. It’s a psychological conspiracy, adhered to by all. We are all beautiful. Keep the faith. Pass it on.

churchSomewhere, a bell tower tolls the hour. Very loud. And very near. And all around, other bell towers take up the tune. The saints clustered around their tops stand impassively calm as the wild clarions ring out, as they have for centuries. They ignore the bells, as the walkers in the street ignore them, as we ignore them. Only the pigeons are startled, but not for long, and return to walking over our feet looking for crumbs.

Our hotel does not disappoint.

It is purple, for a start. Purple from top to bottom.

The grout in the bathrooms is purple.

The walls are purple.

The artworks are purple.

The helpful advice folder in the room is black type on purple paper, so that it can only be read when held under the bedside light at about two inches distance, at which point, like an ancient Illuminati text in the floor of a cathedral, it reluctantly gives up its arcane knowledge of the impossibly complex local train system.

table-and-chairsModern art furniture assails the eyes. Somewhere a table and chairs in the shape of a glass and two steins beckon the unwary. Stay .. drink … relaaaaaax. Tom Hanks rushes into the lobby, crying out to anyone who will listen that it’s not the Metro we allhotel need, but rather the slow suburban S2 line, except they’re on strike. He rushes out again, pursued by a bald monk with evil intent. Or it may have been a postman.

The carpet in the lobby is purple. Your head spins, and not just because ten minutes before you’ve gone arse-over-tit on the laminate floor in your room and you’re no longer quite sure what day it is. Ah yes, it’s match day.

Two Limoncello, please, and two beers.

The ubiquitous lemon liqueur turns up in frozen glasses that are surprisingly beautiful. That’s the aching knee fixed. Onward. Forza!

The game happens.

Having paid a king’s ransom to sit in the posh seats, we exit the ground quickly and safely, with all the fearsome Inter fans (their collective reputation marginally worse than Attilla the Hun’s) shaking our hands with courtesy and smiles and something that looked like pity, as they are enduring a season of shocking failure and they seem to say, “we know what you’re going through, we love you, we share your pain”. Halfway down the stairs, young men and women share the single toilet to serve hundreds, as the male lavatory is inexplicably padlocked, and as they wait in comfortable unisex discomfort they smile, and chatter, and look nothing more nor less than a slightly disreputable renaissance painting come to life. Caravaggio, perhaps.

We are not in Verona, but we might be. There Romeo. There Juliet. There, Tybalt, drunk of course, intent on lechery and perhaps a brawl. All beautiful.

To prevent a brawl, our friends are locked into the stadium for 45 minutes after the game, and then eight thousand Southampton fans are grudgingly permitted to exit down a single narrow staircase. As we stand outside shivering in the suddenly bitter late-evening breeze, they are greeted by a hundred or so police in full riot gear, as clearly the fact that every single one of them is cheerful and good-natured and very obviously they wouldn’t riot if you stuffed a cracker up their collective arse means nothing to Il Commandante Whoever, and having pumped millions into the Milanese economy and behaved impeccably they are now treated like morally dissolute cattle, and dangerously so, too. One stumble, and hundreds could have perished. Criminal stupidity from the authorities, who are obviously only interested in lining the pockets of their carabiniere with unnecessary overtime, as groups of young men in ridiculous gold braid with sub machine guns strut first one way, then another, then back again, noses in the air, sniffing for trouble. They glower. Only word for it. And it isn’t beautiful. It isn’t beautiful one little bit.

But after that distasteful experience, essential Milan reasserts itself, and we walk, semi-frozen and tired to a nearby restaurant owned by a friend and head of the Italian Saints supporters group, and the restaurant is tiny and warm and welcoming, and as feeling returns to our fingers and toes we are treated to a sensational repast of local salami and proscuitto, followed by the most ineffably delicious and unlikely Osso Bucco-topped risotto with creamy rice so imbued with butter and white wine and saffron that the plate almost glows as it comes to the table, and the Osso Bucco topping is gelatinous and rich and the bone marrow in the veal is luscious and braised for hours so that it melts in your mouth. And at the next table are members of the local Parliament representing the curious Legia Nord, the byzantine regional and federalist party which is anti-EU and anti-Rome, fiercely proud of local traditions, socially-conservative, and essentially a party of the right (especially in its anti-immigration activism) yet containing many socialists, liberals and centrists too, who care more for their local area than they do about mere matters such as political philosophy. We remind the leader that we had met previously, at Wembley Stadium, no less, and exchanged happy banter, even though he is Legia Nord and we are socialists. “Of course I forget you if you are socialist!” he laughs amiably, and then says, perfectly seriously, “We need more socialists in Italy. All our socialists are not really socialists, they all agree with the right. This is not good for democracy. How do you like the risotto? It is a local speciality. Best risotto in Italy! More wine?”

panatonneAnd his colleague at the next table waves his serviette in the air as he makes an important debating point about bureaucrats in Brussels and sets it alight on the candle, which seems as good a reason as any for everyone to adjourn to the doorway for a cigarette. And the wind has dropped so the sky is clear and cold, and in the distance a police siren cuts through the still and smoky air and the patron announces “We have Panettone!” which is served with sweet mascarpone cream and it is explained that this doughy, fruit-filled dish is really only served on Christmas Day, but in honour of our visit they have made it specially tonight. And our hosts make it clear that they, not us, are paying for dinner, and we must come again soon. And they really mean it. And everywhere is smiles and gentility and the Gods of football work their magic.

And tomorrow, naturally, the trains are all on strike, so we will not be visiting the Cathedral to see the Last Supper, so we will have time to write this.

And it is beautiful. They are beautiful. Life is beautiful. Italy is beautiful.

And mad. But mainly beautiful.

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harred

“Haters gonna hate” goes one of the more popular phrases doing the rounds on the internet currently.

This fascinating – strongly recommended and well-researched – article from the BBC tackles one of the most pressing issues facing modern democracy.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160823-how-modern-life-is-destroying-democracy

It argues that the brutal tribalisation of Western democratic politics – the ever widening gap between left and right that also sees both those “wings” of politics more extreme in reality as well as simply being perceived as such – is partly a function of the way we live now, and perhaps especially interestingly, that the algorithm-driven marginalisation of readers into ever more narrowly targeted discussion groups on social media is a major factor.

In other words, the more time we spend on Facebook, the less we are exposed to competing points of view, and the more rigid we therefore become in our opinions, because we are constantly exerting confirmation bias on ourselves, and receiving it from those who agree with us. What’s more, the stronger the confirmation bias the less likely we are to accept opposing evidence. Even facts don’t make any difference to the opinions we hold.

As we replicate this social media bias into our daily lives with our friends’ groups, the same effect is multiplied.

All of which bodes ill for the institution of democracy. Democracy only survives – only works – when there is a broad, implicitly accepted consensus that disagreement isn’t just healthy, it is actually the oxygen that nourishes democracy. Debate is good. It’s more than good, it’s how wisdom is created. It’s also how agreement is built between competing groups exerting different pressures on the system. With no debate, whichever side is stronger merely overthrows the other, and the other becomes angrier and more likely to resort to non-democratic methods to achieve their desired outcomes.

The number of friendships shattered by the emotions released over “Brexit” must pass into tens of thousands, or more. And it isn’t good enough to say “well, they can’t have been very good friendships to begin with”, because we can observe that many were. But the tensions raised, especially via the debating tactics used, essentially told people that their side were angels and the other side demons. In most cases, of course, that simply wasn’t true.

The current American presidential election has descended into by far the least edifying contest in living memory.

No, Hilary Clinton is not a perfect human being any more than her husband was. Yet neither is she the epitome of evil and illegality that she is accused of being by many on the right. Discussion of her intended program is virtually banished in pursuit of relentless personalised character attacks. Similarly, Trump has said plenty – and done plenty – that warrants forensic analysis, and his character is legitimately under question. Yes despite his strangled syntax and rubbery policy positions, it also cannot be denied that he has tapped into a rich and deep vein of anti-establishment angst that deserves to be heard and understood, lest it spiral beyond the system and into the realm of civil disobedience and worse.

There have already been glimmerings of a rejection of the very notion of civil society in America, to left and right. This is extremely worrying, as the country’s nascent economic recovery is very fragile, and the rest of the world relies on it becoming locked into place. That requires stability.

 

hitler

 

What we need is a return to courtesy. To a willingness to concede that the other side might have a point. Not a mindless dumbing-down style of courtesy that means we tolerate people saying any old nonsense – as we have argued often, free speech never was – and never should be – considered to be absolute.

We need the people to demand courtesy of our political leaders, and we need the people to demand that they operate with transparency, ethics, and respect for their opponents. That they argue the merits of a policy position, and not just the morality or motives of their opponents.

We need, in effect, to demand more of our leaders; we demand they do much more than enthusiastically follow whatever lapse into tribalism we exhibit. A great truism is that ‘We get the politicians we deserve”. So getting better politicians means we have to say, loud and clear, that we want to elevate people who can look beyond stoking the fires of tribalism – yes, even to the point of putting those fires out, and even if they serve an electoral purpose.

They get paid the big bucks. We have a perfect right to expect more than self-serving populism in return.

girl runningA friend writes to Wellthiswhatithink with an encouraging and uplifting story of humanity shining through in a crisis.

Like most countries in the West, Australia has its own concerns about relations with our Muslim community, and concerns about the problems in the Middle East; this little story shows a kinder side of the problem.

“With the Olympics in full swing we recently took the kids to Doncaster Athletics track for practice – watching Usain Bolt had inspired them! – and there were a few people doing laps.

I noticed a little girl (no more than about eight or nine) running around the track on her own.

Suddenly I heard the most horrific screaming coming from the back straight of the track. I turned around and saw the little girl hysterical, screaming and crying and red all over her face then I realised that the poor little thing had lost concentration – the clever folk running the stadium place a metal barrier about four feet of the ground at two different points of the track allegedly to protect the first two lanes – and the kid had run face first into a metal pole.

I ran over to her (shocked that others were just standing there and watching) and her face was really swollen. She was shaking, screaming and had blood pouring out of her mouth, two teeth knocked, blood pouring out all over her face and clothes. The pain and distress must have been terrifying.

With a couple of kids of my own, I knew the most important thing was to calm her down. I told her she was going to be ok and placed my daughter’s shirt to her mouth to stem the bleeding and she basically started to faint as I carried her back towards the main entry looking for her family.

By this stage all my guys were with me and I sent them off to find the parents. By now I was frankly getting very concerned for the child’s safety. Suddenly an ashen faced woman and her equally pale young son came running towards me speaking a language I didn’t recognise. I tried to explain that we would take her to the Community Centre (which I noticed was open and had a small group inside) which was next to the track.

When we got to the Community Centre a group of young Muslim families were having afternoon tea (dressed in their traditional clothing) and they helped take the child from me, and one of the group (who might have been a Doctor, as he certainly seemed to know what he was doing) took charge and they started to help revive the child.

I asked the mother of the little girl what language they spoke and she said, in stumbling, broken English but loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Hebrew’.

I didn’t say anything more and they continued to stem the blood from the girl and care for her.

The ‘Doctor’ didn’t look up from his work, but he had heard the mother. He just said, very quietly and intently, almost to himself but I knew he was talking to me, ‘We help everyone’  and they continued to do what they could. Nothing else was said and they washed the blood from the child’s face, and I was mightily relieved to see that she was now conscious again, and a lot calmer.

I advised the Mother to take the child straight to the Royal Children’s Hospital and she was so incredibly appreciative – she said thank you in her own way to all the people that helped and took the little girl off to the hospital.

I must say we were all shaken – and covered in blood, also – but it just goes to show that people really are people, whatever their social or racial background, and they will help others in need, and I felt genuinely touched by what I saw.”

We thank Simon so much for sending us this encouraging anecdote. Coming in the week that also saw that heart-rending photograph of the little Syrian boy sitting dazed and bloodied on a chair having been pulled from the rubble of an air strike, it struck us as well worth re-publishing.

If only – if only – we could all always see the human beings – the children – in our stories. Every one of them an individual. Frightened. Hurting. Deserving of our care.

Innocent.

rubble

 

Anyone, anywhere in the world, can donate directly to the Red Cross in Italy via this link https://www.ammado.com/fundraiser/italy-eq/donate

You can donate anonymously, or attach a message, as you wish.

And we urge any readers of ours who can who are in Italy to donate blood. The need is very urgent. Locations in the area are below, or enquire at your nearest hospital.

 

blood donation

 

Facebook has set up their Safety Check feature for people in the area to let friends and family know they are safe.

You can help by sharing this information, too. Please post a link to this blog on your Facebook, Twitter or other feeds. Thank you.

amatriciana-17510_lOne of the two main towns devastated by the quake is the home of the Amatriciana recipe, shortened to Matriciana by some people, a hugely popular pasta dish enjoyed by people the world over.

Sadly, many people killed in the terrible event were actually visiting the area to enjoy a festival of the famed dish of bacon/ham, chilli and tomato.

Here’s one idea: if Amatriciana is one of your favourite dishes, then maybe donate whatever a dish of it would cost you in your local pasta restaurant? That’s what we’ve done.

Our prayers and sadness for the people of this beautiful region.

 

Thanks to Kiss FM we now know that ten popular Melbourne restaurants have been penalised with more than $325,000 in fees for operating filthy; cockroach infested kitchens.

The restaurants were prosecuted in 2015 for reasons ranging from failing to protect food from pests to handling food in an unhealthy manner. The majority were Asian dining ventures.

The biggest fine was given to Post Deng Cafe in Little Bourke Street which was hit with a fine of $50,000 plus they had to pay $3442 in costs.

It is now under new management but in May 2015 it was convicted of ‘’unsafe food handling, failing to take all practicable measures to eradicate and prevent pests, and failing to ensure it was clean enough that “there was no accumulation of food waste, dirt, and grease.”

Other restaurants that have been prosecuted are:

Raramen – Glen Waverley – $19,000 – live cockroaches, flies, rodent faces all found.
Cafe Student Curries and Pizza – Clayton – $67,500 (including costs)- inadequate pest control, poor food storage.
Pabu Grill and Sake – Collingwood – $45,000 – 19 breaches of the Food Act.
La Casareccia Pizza Restaurant (aka Grillers Steak and Ribs, Bubbles Seafood, My Room Service), 653 High St, Thornbury — fined $40,000
Dumpling King, Westfield Doncaster Food Court, Doncaster — fined $25,000
Healthy Noodle, 1905 Dandenong Rd, Clayton — fined $17,000
Dees Kitchen, 19 Pier St, Dromana — fined $15,000
Wendy’s Bakery, 473 Whitehorse Rd, Mitcham — fined $7500
Hills Noodle Shop, 585 Station St, Box Hill — fined $4000

Extra flies with that?

Ironically, we do have a tinge of sympathy for these outlets, whilst being very pleased to see the problems picked up.

When we wuz a yoof, we worked as a cook in a wide variety of hotels, restaurants, holiday camps and on a fruit and veg van doing the rounds of major hotels.

More than once, we failed to duck a full-blown hosing down in one particular kitchen where once a week the head chef would literally take a fire hose to the place, in an attempt to stay the right side of the inspectors. It’s a stressful topic.

In today’s dog-eat-dog world (if you’ll pardon the pun) it’s hard for small restaurants to make a great living – the market is over-supplied, the owners and staff are frequently exhausted, and frankly if we all live one metre from a rat (as we are told we do) and in a warm climate, which we do, it’s damn near impossible to be sure that there are never, ever droppings or a bloody cockroach somewhere.

Yes, yes, we all assume kitchens are dirty places – and some are – but many owners fight a long and often losing battle trying to to the right thing.

Most of us head to Asia and chow down at street stalls and shanty town restaurants where the health standards are … well, less than perfect. And most of us survive, albeit sometimes with an upset tummy for our sins, although that is most likely, frankly, to come from eating salad vegetables washed in unclean water.

BTW, if there’s a couple of guiding rules for eating in Asia, it’s:

  • Don’t eat anything that isn’t piping hot
  • Don’t eat any fruit, vegetables and salad that you haven’t washed yourself.

We once nearly died in Whenghou, but that’s another story.

As for these Melbourne restaurants, we’re sure they’ll pick up their game, and so they should. But some of the fines are swingeing, and these are, when all’s said and done, small businesses. It’s not exactly an incentive to open a small eatery, is it?

lecter

THANKS, FACEBOOK. I NEEDED THAT.

Now I get anxious when I look at pictures of babies on Facebook.

I do not understand. I think we should be told.

One minute they’re on the breast. Or gurgling cutely. Rolling on blankies,

eyes bigger than berries.

Next they’re pulling the wings off flies, beating up the kid down the street, and one in umpteen thousand turn into serial killers.

How do you tell? Why one and not the other?

You can’t really “Dislike”. A baby.

Can’t say, “Honest injun’

I reckon you’ve got a little nutter there.”

Don’t like the way he’s staring.

People will be upset. Understandably.

But not in Hawaii. Not so much.

Hardly any at all, in fact.

Must be all the Pina Coladas.

Hard to be all screwed up when a Pina Colada is just a

swim-up bar away.

You’re pretty safe in Hawaii.

Bad in Washington. Way bad.

Everyone has a 0.025% chance of being strangled – strangled, or shot
– most likely.

By a nutter. In Washington.

Maybe it’s the politics. CSPAN is driving all the babies mad
left watching TV, while Mum fixes breakfast.

But you probs won’t be dead by poison. That’s exaggerated.

Agatha Christie is responsible for a lot of misconceptions.

So if you’re sick after the lox and cream cheese bagel

it’s probably just the fish.

The fish has gone bad. Not the baby.

So now you know.

Fascinating new research about how the human mind works.

“Humans have a capacity to imagine scenarios, reflect on them, and embed them into larger narratives,” says evolutionary psychologist Thomas Suddendorf at the University of Queensland in Australia. “There appears to be something fundamentally distinct about human “mental time travel” when compared to the capacities of our closest-surviving animal relatives.”

At it most simple, human beings look ahead and believe they can predict their future. But this ability to forecast our futures, however inaccurately, comes at a price.

“We worry about many things we can do little about, and we can experience persistent anxiety about things that may never eventuate,” says Suddendorf.

 

Animals fear predators for good reason (Credit: Anup Shah/Naturepl.com)

Animals fear their natural predators for good reason (Credit: Anup Shah/Naturepl.com)

 

Most of us overcome these worries easily enough. Humans are different from other animals. As the Current Biology website notes, we have an in-built optimism bias, which gives us a rosier view of the future than is really appropriate.

The ability to anticipate is a hallmark of cognition. Inferences about what will occur in the future are critical to decision making, enabling us to prepare our actions so as to avoid harm and gain reward.

Given the importance of these future projections, one might expect the brain to possess accurate, unbiased foresight.

Humans, however, exhibit a pervasive and surprising bias: when it comes to predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events.

For example, we underrate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer. We also expect to live longer than objective measures would warrant, overestimate our success in the job market, and believe that our children will be especially talented. This optimism bias phenomenon is one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust behaviour or cognition biases documented in psychology and behavioural economics.

This becomes especially important where death is concerned. As far as studies can establish, we seem to be the only animal able to contemplate, understand and cope with our own mortality.

“One of the realities is that you are going to die.” But humans have an amazing ability to apparently ignore – or at least suppress – this eventuality, which Ajit Varki of the University of California dubs “an evolutionary quirk”.

For example, if animals denied the risks of death as many humans do, zebras or antelopes might knowingly graze near hungry lions. They don’t.

But this is innate optimism appears not to be the case for those with depression, for whom the future often appears very bleak. And in reality, they might well be right, at least to some extent, as they are not affected by the irrational “optimism bias”.

“Clinical psychologists are beginning to recognise and disentangle the important roles aspects of foresight play in our mental health,” says Suddendorf.

Depressed people truly appreciate reality, agrees Varki, who has written extensively about human uniqueness and our ability to deny death.

So why do “healthy” people exhibit optimism bias?

“We need that denial,” says Varki. “Otherwise we might curl up and do nothing.”

And instead of facing the transient nature of life, some us engage in apparently reckless activities such as climbing dangerous mountains, driving cars too fast and taking mind-altering drugs, content in our assumption that we’ll be fine.

So the next time you meet someone suffering from depression, don’t be too quick to dismiss their view of the world. They might just be seeing it more clearly than you.

Which is a depressing thought, eh?

Jo

 

At Wellthisiswhatithink we have often bemoaned the brutalisation of politics. The way “anti politics” has become the new norm. A politics which is little more than cynicism, mistrust, name-calling and sloganising. It is seen most clearly and more than ever in the mindless forwarding of memes that brook no discussion, because no discussion is possible.

Those with an agenda to drive will accuse this blog of descending into vitriol on occasion. We reject that accusation. Politics is a serious matter, and you cannot “do” politics without disputation. Indeed, disputation – the contest of ideas – is the very core of freedom. And if we have, and it can be demonstrated, then we will recant and apologise.

But there is a difference – a gulf – between healthy disputation and hatred. And hatred has become the new normal, and relatively recently, too.

Whether it is in America, France, Denmark, Norway, the UK or Australia. Whether it is a discussion of guns, of racism, gay rights, of female emancipation, the European Union, or, most obviously, immigration, refugees and specifically Islam. The attitude that “you are with me, 100%, or you are evil and worthy of whatever abuse I choose to throw your way” has taken deep root. With the ascension of Trumpism, most obviously, we see how the inchoate mass rage generated by mindless sloganeering translates into political power, and then political violence. Democracy is a fragile flower, and it is wilting.

This article discussing Jo Cox’s assassination – for that is what it was – says it better than we can. We strongly recommend you read it. Because hatred is never funny. Hatred is never smart. Hatred is never right. Hatred is never appropriate.

Sure, “politics is a contact sport.” It doesn’t have to be murder.

http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/06/a-day-of-infamy/

In slightly better news, #ThankYourMP is trending in the UK. Many people simply saying thank you to their MP, whether or not they vote for them. Well done, whoever thought that up.

Spotted this on a friend’s Facebook page. I really admire someone – in this case Laura Buskes – who has the courage and public vulnerability to talk about important issues.

More and more I’m noticing how words like “tough” and “strong” are used as praise for people, and seen to be something to aspire to. I get it, it’s an evolutionary thing; survival of the fittest etc etc. Being strong and resilient is desired because it comes from an ability to outlive your attackers/predators/competitors.

The thing I don’t like is how we romanticise these traits over traits like vulnerability and seeking help. The amount of times I’ve seen memes that point out how “someone busier than you is at the gym right now”, or how much sleep a mother has lost but she still works, or how great it is that someone never complains about their difficult circumstances. It’s all synonymous with strength, and I get it. 

LauraOn the other hand, strength is a mask. It implies that someone is dealing with some kind of pain but they push through, alone and stoney faced. It reinforces an ideal that when things are hard we should shut up and get on with it.

We don’t cry, or seek help or give up, and those who speak up are “complainers” and they’re a nuisance.

Can you see what I’m getting at? This same ideal is extended to mental health, and sure it’s getting better, but we still carry this view that the ones who cry, who break down, who admit that life is too much are the ones who are weak. And weakness is oh so bad.

We want to do everything ourselves, we want ALL the praise and we want to prove that we are worthy of admiration, so we don’t ask for help.

I don’t want to say that strength is fake and bad, but I don’t want to look at it as the alpha quality of humans. We already know that issues of emotional suppression manifest themselves into mental illness and event violent behaviour, so why isn’t there a bigger movement to encourage vulnerability?

Talking about our problems is hard; we often can’t articulate whats wrong because we aren’t encouraged to vocalise and express our pain. We often don’t have the skills to pin point why we’re hurting because as children we were told to buck up.

We have the abilities to help each other, we have the ability to offer love and support to anyone suffering. But we shroud the issue of suffering in language that implies weakness rather than honesty and openness, so we shy away from it.

Vulnerability is not weak, it’s real and it’s what makes us human. You don’t have to be tough and cold in order to be socially respected, but you do have to create room in your heart for someone to help you mend it.

Amen.

The other great resource on this topic is the famous Ted Talk on vulnerability by Brené Brown. If you haven’t watched it, you really should. it’s one of the best Ted Talks ever. So here it is.


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