Parking pests

A new phenomenon is disturbing my usual peace of mind. I refer to the habit that has recently caught on whereby visitors to our neighborhood, either from Maryland or Virginia, park on our block and sit there in the car, engrossed in their cellphones or computers, sometimes for an hour or more at a time. Two hours has been observed. Early for an appointment? A quiet period away from the wife and kids? I don’t know but the point is that they keep the car engine running throughout, ticking over for an hour or more. I don’t know whether this is bad for the car, but it is for me. Our block is already busy with traffic, and these parkers are fouling the air, sitting there with the engines running. The air quality in this large city is already famously bad, and here we are having to endure even more smelly fumes. I suppose it is an indication of the single-minded concentration of modern man on himself, and a total indifference to the health and well-being of the residents, fellow human beings, living close to his parking spot.

Am I getting over-fussy or is this plain thoughtless and selfish? Whatever your reaction, mine is a disturbance of what should be ataraxic retirement.

Is NewYork doomed?

New York should prepare for 15-metre storm surges by 2300. Much worse is yet to come. Climate change will bring good news and really bad news for New York City. The good news is that hurricanes might be more likely to miss the city over the next three centuries. This means the future risk of big storm surges, relative to local sea level, could be lower than today. However, the really bad news is that if we don’t slash greenhouse gas emissions, local sea level will rise by a huge 13 metres or more. With this factored in, New York could be facing storm surges at least 15 metres above the current sea level by 2300 (PNAS,

“Sea level rise itself is a very big hazard, before you start to look at tropical cyclones,” says Andra Garner of Rutgers University in New Jersey. Garner’s team used climate models to simulate the paths of future hurricanes and the storm surges they will produce. These were combined with estimates of sea level rise. They conclude that 2.3-metre floods, which happened in New York on average once in 500 years before 1800, struck roughly every 25 years from 1970 to 2005, will probably hit every five years by 2030 to 2045. If we don’t cut emissions, local sea level could permanently rise by 2.3 metres before the century ends. What’s more, meteorologist Jeff Masters of Weather Underground says the good news part could be wrong: at least one study shows climate change will make hurricanes more likely to hit the north-east US. (New Scientist)

London long ago built a flood barrage downstream from the city. It was contraversial at the time, but the flood gates have already been used, and will be used more often as sea levels rise. If Europe can protect against flooding why hasn’t something similar been done in New York, where seaside houses, damaged by hurricane Sandy have been renovated, when these same residential neighborhoods should have been relocated inland? These people who now enjoy nice sea views will only have further flooding disasters to look forward to. Conclusion: don’t threaten your ataraxia by moving to the seaside a house on a hill is the smart thing to look for.

Standing up to the bullies

“If you want a classic formulation from our new Gilded Age, here it is, as described recently in the Guardian: “A head-on assault on teachers for their long summer vacations would ‘sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs [and] having to rely on food pantries.’” That’s advice for what not to criticize in a “messaging guide” produced by the State Policy Network (SPN), an “alliance” of 66 right-wing “ideas factories,” funded by the Koch Brothers, the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart), and the DeVos family (that is, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s billionaire relatives and Amway heirs). It’s part of a right-wing stealth strategy for finding just the right approach to discrediting America’s restive red-state teachers, chafing under seemingly never-ending tax-cut regimes in states like Oklahoma, programs sponsored by those same plutocratics. As an approach to governing, such tax-cutting, now decades old, has been a giveaway to the rich (just as Donald Trump’s recent tax “reform” bill will be). When it comes to what formerly were known as public schools (what the right now calls “government schools,”) the results have been catastrophic. Oklahoma, for instance, has cut per-student funding by 28% in the last decade.

“In the past, SPN went after the unions, who are fought an inequality gap that has recently come close to reaching the record heights of the previous Gilded Age in 1913. Now, however, it’s those ungrateful striking teachers that are SPN’s target and for good reason. In red states like Arizona, Kentucky, and West Virginia, their recent protests, walkouts, and strikes in favor of saving schools that have been put on a financial starvation diet (like teachers’ salaries) and increasingly lack everything, even in a few cases the time to teach. They are beginning to shake up state politics, and not in ways that either those billionaires or the Republican Party much likes. After all, those teachers teach… well, students (from whom we’ve heard quite a bit recently)… and those students, unbelievably enough, have… parents, and when you add up those teachers, parents, and students (future voters all), they turn out to be a group with the kind of numerical heft that billionaires, despite the way they’ve been multiplying year by year in this country, lack.” (Tomgram 4/19/2018, reporting on a Guardian article).

And yet… ordinary citizens in states like Arizona, Kentucky and West Virginia continue to vote for a political party that is in hock to the grabitocracy and gives every appearance of despising “schooling” (education being another thing altogether – you have to learn how to learn before you begin a true education). Were Epicurus alive today I am convinced that he would want us to give priority to having the best schools, the best teachers, an informed populace and an ability to think for oneself. One can’t help concluding, however, that some people with extreme right-wing views don’t believe in school at all, but want a compliant and ignorant electorate that watches Fox News and does what it’s told. This could end very badly, but then if you are taught no history you have no idea what could be in store for you.

Back pain treatments “useless”

Most treatments for low back pain simply do not work, an international team of scientists writing in The Lancet has warned. The condition is now the world’s leading cause of disability: an estimated 540 million people are affected and that number is growing as populations age.

But back pain is not properly understood, the scientists say, and is being widely mismanaged, with many patients prescribed aggressive treatments including spinal injections, powerful opioids and surgeries that are of “dubious benefit” and may in fact do harm. They advise that for most types of back pain, the best advice is simply to remain active and remain positive: a positive attitude and job satisfaction are some of the strongest indicators of whether back pain will turn into serious disability, they say. Current NHS guidelines recommend exercise and therapy. However, this not what patients always want to hear, putting doctors under pressure to offer them non-existent cures. Many patients are sent off for scans that lead to surgery – although in most cases, surgery is no more effective than non-invasive treatments and it risks leaving patients worse off. A third are prescribed potentially addictive opioid painkillers, but there is evidence that these can make back pain worse. (The Week 31 March 2018)

Yes, I agree.  I have had back pain for six months and so far nothing has worked.  The last thing you need are painkillers, especially opioids.  At best they simply disguise the pain, and temporarily at that. I suggest an exciting detective movie or reading the last ten years of postings on this blog.  At least the latter will give you to a nice long sleep.

Signs of old age

To the New Statesman
I can confirm Peter Wilby’s observation that old age creeps up unnoticed from my reaction on being offered a seat on the Tube by a stranger for the first time. The overwhelming emotions are those of surprise, indignation and insult, with gratitude a long way behind.
Some years later, I still try to avoid eye contact on a full Tube, so that no one makes what I continue to regard as an unnecessary offer. (Dr Graham Mott, Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire)

No, no, no! That’s silly. It’s really nice to see young people (usually women, also American servicemen) proffer their seats for old people. It shows they are thoughful, well-mannered and well brought-up. Mostly, and understandably, they stand up for my wife, and get a nice smile and a big thank-you. There are not enough little human gestures like this. Glad Dr. Graham Mott is not my doctor!

Some thoughts from Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Epicurean

Here are some thoughts, called “The Decent Life”, from the philosopher Emperor, whose beliefs were Epicurean:

Honour and revere the gods, treat human beings as they deserve, be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Remember, nothing belongs to you but your flesh and blood – nothing else is under your control. 5.33

Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverend, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts. (6.30)

The only thing that isn’t worthless is to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t. (6.47)

Four principles:  ……Truth, justice, self-control, kindness…. (7.63)

Nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite. (8.1)

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart

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Is do-it-yourself gene editing wise and ethical?

CRISPR, the cheap and easy technique for making precise changes to DNA, has researchers around the world racing to trial its use in treating a host of human diseases.

But this race is not confined to the lab. Last month, Josiah Zayner, a biochemist who once worked for NASA, became the first person to edit his own genes with CRISPR, in order  to remove the gene for myostatin, which regulates muscle growth, even though it might have led to  unintended consequences, such as  tissue damage, cell death, or an immune response that attacked his own muscles.

Other people are now starting to use gene modification for a variety of maladies such as colour blindness,  or implanting a gene for  a rare genetic mutation called tetrachromacy that is sometimes found in women and allows them to see in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Biohackers, as they are called, believe it is a basic human right to access and edit one’s own genome. “I am of the opinion that your genome is your own,” said one. “I think that it is important that people have the ability to choose what kind of gene expression they want for themselves. This ethos of “my body, my choice” is used to underpin arguments for health, reproductive and disability rights, but should it extend to the right to edit our own genes? What about the potential unintended effects of using untested technology? And will allowing broad access to CRISPR risk creating a group of “superhumans” with enhanced senses and abilities?

Is there a moral difference between gene editing for medical therapy versus enhancing ordinary abilities?  Some, like John Harris, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester, UK,  does not believe there is a significant difference. He thinks the biohackers could hasten the safe use of CRISPR in humans.”There is a long and noble history of both doctors and scientists experimenting on themselves,” says Harris. “It has proven tremendously valuable in the public interest.”

“At home” gene editing is not at the moment illegal, (except in Germany, where CRISPR kits have been banned), and  none of the biohackers are actually practising medicine on anyone else.  Moreover , most people agree that  genome editing is not ready to be offered for sale to the general public.

The World Anti-Doping Agency is banning all forms of gene therapy, or gene doping, from international competitive sports from 2018. However, gene editing is very difficult to detect. Ishee  Günes Taylor, who also works with CRISPR at the Francis Crick Institute in London, believes that successful gene editing will be more difficult than the biohackers think, although there could be scientific benefits to monitoring how biohackers modify their bodies, giving us more information about how CRISPR works in humans. But the potential for harm implies that this would be unethical, and DIY experiments should be more heavily regulated.

At the moment the truth is that the biohackers are going to do it anyway, and in any case it’s hard to write regulations for people playing around with science in their garages. The biohackers believe it is a matter of choice, helping make genome editing safe and accessible for the wider public.

But how can we, the public, make sure the experimenters are responsible and that they acknowledge the possible consequences of spreading CRISPR widely?  The horse is virtually out of the stable, for good or evil.  Let us hope good prevails. It has a tough time in other areas of life.    I tend to think that Epicurus would say that the gene editors are playing god, and are not to be trusted, and that is scary.

(Based on an artcle by Alex Pearlman in New Scientist, but heavily edited for length)