the new ussr illustrated

assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics

movie review – shadowless sword

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Pour qu’une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.

Gustave Flaubert


The altogether too irreproachable So-Ha











I’ve done a couple of movie reviews in the past, and I think I might do them more regularly in the future, just to give some play to my more creative writing side.

The Korean film Shadowless Sword (filmed in China) begins with warfare and a fighting heroine Mae Young-Ok, who unlike La Pucelle in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, doesn’t need voices from heaven or magical powers to help her. This is a modern (2005) movie, though set in the tenth century (presumably the Christian dating is for we westerners’ benefit), and so the heroines are tough, highly skilled sword-fighters with flawless grace, spotless costumes and peerless beauty, which of course I’m all in favour of. Korean women can do anything!

At the outset, we’re told that the old Korean land of Balhae fell to the Georan, a northern tribe, in 926. The Georans renamed the area, but the vanquished people regrouped and fought to recover their homeland. Again, not unlike the situation in La Pucelle’s France in the fifteenth century… And a quick check of Korean history tells me this isn’t MiddleEarth make-beliieve. Balhae, which indeed came to an end in 926, was an empire that covered northern Korea and southern Manchuria for some 300 years. Not that this film’s director, Young-jun Kim, intends to be any more historically accurate than Shakespeare. Billed on SBS as a martial arts film (but it isn’t really, it’s a historical fantasy), Shadowless Sword takes as many liberties with the basic laws of physics, not to mention credibility, as it does with history. Swashbucklers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, disappear in a puff of chemicals, and swat enemy combatants like flies in battle scenes that would leave poor old Richard III scratching his hump in wild surmise. All of which I happily forgive in view of the film’s real heroine, the inscrutable Yeon So-Ha….

In the opening scene, Balhae’s capital Sanggyeong is raided by the Eastern Georan ‘Killer Blade Army’ under their leaders Gun Hwa-Pyung and Mae Young-Ok, and the crown prince is killed. The Balhaens, if that’s what they call themselves, are in crisis, and need to find a new leader, preferably of royal blood, to carry on the fight. This is a problem, as the Killer Blade Army seem intent on murdering every last member of the royal family, but there’s one possibly promising candidate, an exiled prince named Jeong-hyun. Balhae’s PM (probably not elected) sends the nation’s premier swordswoman, the aforementioned So-Ha, to seek out the prince and offer him the kingdom. So-Ha is of course totally stunning as well as prodigiously disciplined and effortlessly talented – probably better suited to recapture the greatness of the dynasty than any male… but her role is to serve.

She finds the quondam prince in a far-flung backwater, trading in the black market under the name of Sosam. When she makes enquiries about his real name, he tries to bump her off via his gang of thugs, which sets up the next scene of choreographed mayhem, this time played half for laughs. So-Ha then confronts Jeonghyun with the situation, that he must take up the role of king. The somewhat embittered Jeonghyun is unimpressed – considering that his motto now is ‘survive no matter what’, why would he take up the apparently lost cause of the Balhaeans? With that answer, he disappears in a burst of fire and smoke, as you do. But he’s not out of trouble, as his beaten-up gang has discovered his identity, and, at the same time, the Killer Blade Army have arrived in the region to dispose of the last remaining royal. Of course So-Ha arrives in time to rescue the prince, whereupon Mae Young-Ok arrives to kill him off. Appropriately, as the bad guy, she’s just slightly less beautiful than So-Ha. They exchange pleasantries – ‘great to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you..’ Then there are some attempted negotiations – ‘hand over the prince and nobody else’ll get killed’. The gang leader, a comic character, tries to team up with Mae Young-Ok and the KBA, in the hope of profit, but is slaughtered for his pains, to impress upon us the ruthlessness of the bad guys. In the ensuing violence So-Ha urges Jeonghyun to make a getaway, thus further binding him to her. There follows a lengthy chase over rooftops in the dark with the usual flying and acrobatics and swordplay, but of course they escape, and their relationship, still shaky and suspicious, starts to develop. They retire to a tavern, where the worldly Jeonghyun tempts our squeaky-clean heroine with alcohol and food, to no avail of course, she’s has no such material needs. In fact, this is one of the more interesting scenes, which takes it beyond a mere ‘martial arts’ movie (in fact it is described as belonging to the broad genre of wuxia, which literally means ‘martial arts hero’, a category that So-Ha fits squarely into, a category that includes popular literature, opera, TV and video games).

A group of uniformly clad individuals enter the tavern – their slightly outlandish outfits broadly represent the Georan style in the movie. Jeonghuyn recognises them as another of the ‘gangs’, who are are out for trouble because their leader has been killed. So-Ha, not much interested, suggests they move on, as they’re in constant danger. Our princeling, feeling trapped by this stranger who’s trying to force him into kingship, stands on his dignity, saying that nobody can tell him when to stay or go, and in an access of frustration, he hurls his cup at the gang sitting nearby. They react in the usual low-key but totally ominous fashion of martial-arts types, standing up and asking what might be the matter. Jeonghuyn, apparently improvising, says that his boss, indicating So-Ha, wants to ask if their leader died due to sexual over-indulgence. This of course leads to a confrontation, but before things escalate, a female figure, the former leader’s daughter, floats down from the ceiling, demanding to know what’s going on (I like how these female figures are given such prominence in what is clearly a patriarchal ancient society, a modern twist designed to appeal to both sexes). One of the gang members tells her what So-Ha is alleged to have said, whereupon she shoots the (male) messenger, a reminder of the arbitrariness of ‘justice’ in this world. The daughter, or spirit, than asks So-Ha to repeat what she ‘said’, whereupon the two women retire to the forest, not in the ‘let’s step outside and settle this man-to-man’ fashion of your Rambo type, but to sort things out rationally and truthfully. The spirit-daughter is made aware that it’s Jeonghuyn who’s causing trouble, but that he’s to be forgiven as he’s potentially the saviour of the kingdom. Alternatively, So-Ha may have told her a cock-and-bull tale… In any case the scene reverses old values: the male is infantile, the women are wise, and their cool heads must prevail.

Meanwhile, the KBA leader, Gun, is being castigated by the Georan leadership for not having captured Jeonghuyn or dealt with So-Ha. They’re also annoyed with Gun for his nasty habit of killing off the royal princes, when they want to bring them onside, to bring peace to the country. Gun, though, is driven by family and tribal revenge, as we see through a flashback of his father being tortured and killed before his eyes, and through his regular remarks about family honour counting for everything – the usual primitivist prescription. ‘If you want to achieve something big, you need to control your vengeful spirit,’ the royal courtier tells Gun, in one of the film’s most resonant lines.

Mae Young-Ok is in hot pursuit of our heroes, who are moving from resting place to resting place, all the while talking and arguing about evil spirits and the role of the sword in everyday life, with Jeonghuyn sometimes lashing out at the demands being made on him. While passing through a market town he makes a break for it, but is caught by one of the KBA leaders, at the same time that Mae Young-Ok catches up with So-Ha. There follows the obligatory martial arts scenes, with swordplay and magic and comedy. So-Ha bests Mae Young-Ok, who lives to fight another day, while Jeonghuyn comprehensively slaughters his adversary – another milestone on the road to kingship. The pair reunite and flee, chased by the KBA. Just before they’re caught, they jump in the lake, which leads to underwater swordfighting, which starts to make me wonder if this is all based on real events. At one point Jeonghuyn looks like drowning, but trusty magical So-Han gives him the kiss of life. They eventually escape through the sewers or something, where they have another heart-to-heart about kingship, duty and destiny, rudely interrupted by the magical arrival of Gun. More unbelievable swordplay ensues, with no conclusion – the good guys make their escape, with Jeonghuyn wounded in the back, and Gun is left looking murderous and steadfast.

In the next scene, the two bad guys contemplate their failure, and Mae Young-Ok is given one last chance to kill So-Ha. Meanwhile, So-Ha tends Jeonghuyn’s wound, the second serious wound in the back he’s suffered. Jeonghuyn makes light of it, but So-Ha reminds him of his youth, before his exile, when he fought bravely for the dynasty. Then we have flashback of the battle in which he received his first wound, and where, as So-Ha reminds him, he received the title of ‘General Splendour’ and the acclaim of the people. Clearly So-Ha knows more than one might expect, and all the while she’s trying to push towards acceptance of his destiny. Her faith in him, of course, comes with a degree of sexual tension.

Once Jeonghuyn has sufficiently recovered they travel on through the countryside disguised as Georans. They witness the suffering of the people and the brutality of the Georan overlords, all intended to sway Jeonghuyn to the side of righteousness. At the next resting-place, he starts practising his swordsmanship; he’s falling under the spell of the shadowless sword, apparently. Shortly after this, at a stream where Jeonghuyn catches fish, they’re ambushed by Mae Young Ok and her band. In spite of being sitting ducks, Mae Young-Ok’s gang misses them with their arrows – incredibly incompetent for a super-warrior. So we have another chase, with magical flights through the trees, and another inconclusive clash of the two woman-warriors. Somehow the good guys fight off the bad guys, but So-Ha has been struck by an envenomed dart, and she begins to weaken. This is the occasion for another piece of moralising, as So-Ha insists that she be left behind, for Jeonghuyn must continue onto his destiny. Jeonghuyn though, argues that if it is a kingly duty to leave his man behind to die, while preserving himself, then he wants nothing to do with kingly duties. So-Ha relents and allows herself to assisted.

They arrive at the home of a man So-Ha calls her uncle, who greets Jeonghuyn as a royal prince. So-Ha collapses, the venom is discovered, and she’s given no chance of recovery.

In the next scene we’re at Georan HQ, where they’re concerned that So-Ha’s uncle is raising an army against them. Gun’s men, the Killer Blade Army, having failed in their task, are to be replaced by the Golden Bow Army. Gun and Mae Young-Ok are pretty unhappy about this, but the Georan PM is adamant. However, he forces Mae Young-Ok to sleep with him, making vague promises to give her another chance. Gun, seeing this, remembers the promise that he made to his faithful warrior-servant, that once all the royal children were killed, they would create their own dynasty together. He’s not a happy chappie.


women warriors


So now it is Jeonghuyn’s turn to watch over So-Ha, who miraculously recovers. Gun kills the Georan PM, while Jeonghuyn recognises So-Ha’s uncle as the commander from the battle of his youth, who tended his wound. So-Ha rises from her sick-bed, recognising that Jeonghuyn is in danger, but Gun arrives to confront her. Her uncle, though, intervenes, and begins a fight with Gun which you know he’s going to lose. Meanwhile the KBA, or is it the GBA, attacks Jeonghuyn while he’s visiting his mother’s grave, but S0-Ha rescues him. Returning to camp, they’re attacked again, this time by Mae Young-Ok, who assures So-Ha that if she overuses her energy now, her arteries will become twisted and she will die. So much for ancient Chinese medicine. Anyway, after more inconclusive balletic battling, along comes Gun to save the day. It’s the moment of truth, at long fucking last. Gun squares off against So-Ha, informing her that he’s disposed of her uncle. He promises to do the same with Jeonghuyn, telling her that she can win only with a decisive killing blow. Can your sword kill? he taunts her. She responds with one of the film’s tropes – the sword is not for killing but for protecting valuable things. With that they commence their final whirligig battle, which ends when Mae Young-Ok tries to intervene and is run through by So-Ha. So-Ha stops, stunned, and Gun takes the opportunity to run Mae Young-Ok through in the opposite direction, in the process delivering what will be the mortal blow to So-Ha. This of course further emphasises Gun’s black nature, and Mae Young-Ok gives a ‘ya shouldna oughta done that, boss’ look to Gun before dropping dead.

Meanwhile Jeonghuyn comes to the party. He’s been on the periphery of things, but rushes up to tend to So-Ha. ‘Nothing can stand in my way,’ says Gun, ‘now watch me slice up this little princeling’. Jeonghuyn notices Gun’s sword, which he took from the crown prince when he killed him. Gun conveniently tells him that two identical swords were given to two princes. This brings on a flashback. He remembers when, as a youth, he taught an orphan girl (yes, the young So-Han) to fight with this sword, telling her it wasn’t for fighting but for protecting valuable things. So he takes up So-Ha’s sword and prepares to fight Gun to the death. Needless to say, he wins, being able to control the ‘internal injury’ (you’d have to see it, and you still wouldn’t believe it).

Returning to So-Ha, who’s still on her feet, brave warrior that she is, Jeonghuyn becomes emotional – ‘if it weren’t for you…’, and So-Ha responds ‘you have been the meaning of my life for the past 14 years’, and suddenly legions of armed men emerge from the bushes, not to fight but to pledge allegiance to their new king. Then suddenly they come under attack – signifying that there will be bloodshed in the kingdom for some time to come. Yet somehow, through the magic of film, our two good guys find themselves alone, which allows for a truly touching death scene, with tears dribbling down. So So-Ha will not become the power behind the throne, except in spirit. Jeonghuyn is now alone. We next see him leading his troops into battle, no longer resembling a Chinese Mick Jagger, and giving a stirring speech à la Elizabeth I or Churchill (sorry about the western references)….

So that’s Shadowless Sword, a marginally superior wuxia movie, I suspect, though I’m no expert – with an impossibly virtuous heroine, which does have a romantic appeal even to an old cynic like me. In some ways it takes me back to my own dreamy childhood, when, bedridden with the mumps, I spent my time reading a prose version of Edmund Spenser’s Tales from the Faerie Queane, and fell in love with the fair Britomartis, who donned armour to rescue her father from the wicked clutches of some black knight or other, in a world of dungeons, dragons and ugly old witches disguised as fair young maidens. Funny how vivid those childhood memories can be. Though no doubt distorted and inaccurate. What I liked too about the movie was the suppressed, or unexpressed sexuality of it all. So-Ha’s competence and unflappability made her sexy, not her dress, her walk, or anything ‘feminine’ about her. That again, took me back to Britomartis and Shakespeare’s Rosalind and other insouciant androgynes. There are certain types, it seems to me, that transcend culture, and I really love that.

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm

a plague of mysteries

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Well, maybe not quite

Well, maybe not quite

I’m writing this because of some remarks made in the workplace which – well, let’s just say they set my sceptical antennae working overtime. They were claims made about the bubonic plague, of all things.

Bubonic plague, dubbed the Black Death throughout European history, is a zoonotic disease, which means it spreads from species to species – in this case from rodents to humans via fleas. Actually there are three types of ‘black death’ plagues, all caused by the enterobacterium Yersinia pestis, the others being the septicemic plague and the pneumonic plague. Other zoonotic diseases include ebola and influenza. Flea-borne infections generally attack the lymphatic system, as does bubonic plague. The term ‘bubonic’ comes from Greek, meaning groin, and the most well-known symptom of the disease were ‘buboes’, grotesque swellings of the glands in the groin and armpit.

It wasn’t called the Black Death for nothing (the blackness was necrotising flesh). It’s estimated that half the European population was wiped out by it in the 14th century. If untreated, up to two-thirds of those infected will be dead within four days. With modern antibiotic treatments, the mortality rate is of course greatly reduced. The broad-based antibiotic, streptomycin has proved very effective. Of course treatment should be immediate if possible, and prophylactic antibiotics should be given to anyone in contact with the infected.

The plague is first known to have stuck Europe in the sixth century, at the time of Justinian. The Emperor actually caught the disease but recovered after treatment. It’s believed that the death toll was very high, but little detail has been recorded. The fourteenth century outbreak appears to have originated in Mongolia, from where it spread through Mongol incursions into the Crimea. An estimated 25 million died in this outbreak from 1347 to 1352.  More limited outbreaks occurred in later centuries, and the last serious occurrences in Europe were in Marseille in 1720, Messina (Sicily) in 1743, and Moscow in 1770. However it emerged again in Asia in the nineteenth century. Limited for some time to south-west China, it slowly spread from Hong-Kong to India, where it killed millions of people in the early twentieth century. Infected rats were inadvertently transported to other countries by trading vessels, resulting in outbreaks in Hawaii and Australia. By 1959, when worldwide casualties dropped to under 200 annually, the World Health Organisation was able to declare the disease under control, but there was another outbreak in India in 1994, causing widespread panic and over 50 deaths.

So that’s a v brief history of the rise and fall of bubonic plague, but I’m interested in looking at early treatments and the discovery of its cause. For the fact is that, even in 1900, when the plague first came to Australia, there was no clear consensus among the experts as to its means of transmission, with many believing that it was as a result of contact with the infected. However, a growing body of evidence was showing a connection with epizootic infection in rats, and as it happened, work done by Australian bacteriologists Frank Tidswell, William Armstrong and Robert Dick, working for a new public health department in Sydney under Chief Medical Officer John Ashburton Thompson, established as a direct result of the plague outbreaks in Sydney from 1900 to 1925, contributed substantially to the modern understanding of Yersinia pestis and its spread from rats to humans. This Australian work was another step forward in the germ theory of disease, first suggested by the French physician Nicolas Andry in 1700, and built upon by many experimental and speculative savants over the next 150 years. The great practical success of John Snow’s work on cholera, followed by the researches of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, established the theory as mainstream science, but zoonotic infections, especially indirect ones where the infection passes from one species to another by means of a vector, have always been tricky to work out.

In fact it was in Hong Kong that the Yersinia pestis bacterium was identified as the culprit. A breakout of plague occurred there in the 1890s, and Alexandre Yersin, a bacteriologist who had worked under both Pasteur and Bloch, was invited to research the disease. He identified the bacterium in June 1894, at about the same time as a Japanese researcher, Kitasato Shibasaburo. The cognoscenti recognise that both men should share the honour of discovery. 

What is fascinating, though, is that the spread of plague from Asia in the 1890s to various ports of the world in the earlier 20th century was very different from the spread of earlier pandemics. Did this have anything to do with science or human practices? Well, what follows is drawn from by far the most comprehensive analysis of the disease I’ve found online, Samuel Cohn’s ‘Epidemiology of the Black Death and successive waves of plague’, in the Cambridge Journal of Medical History.

Cohn’s research and analysis casts credible doubt on the whole plague story, specifically the assumption that we’re dealing with one disease, from the sixth century through to modern outbreaks. He recounts the standard story of three separate pandemics, in the sixth century with a number of recurrences, ditto in the fourteenth century, and in the nineteenth. However, the epidemiology of the most recent pandemic, definitely attributed to Y Pestis and its carrier the Oriental rat flea, Xenopsylla cheopis, is substantially different from that of pandemics one and two, a fact which, according to Cohn, has been obscured by inaccurate analysis of the records. Cohn’s own analysis, it must be said, is fulsome, with 30 pages of references in a 68-page online essay. He doesn’t have a solution as to what caused the earlier pandemics, but he asks some cogent questions. For my own understanding’s sake, I’ll try to summarise the issues in sections.

speed of transmission

 Pandemic 3, if we can call it that, was a much slower mover than the previous two. It seems to have sprung up in China’s Yunnan province from where it reached Hong Kong in 1894. It was noted in the early 20th century that Y pestis was travelling overland at a speed of only 12 to 15 kilometres a year. This can be explained by the fact that Y pestis is a disease mainly of rats, though other rodents can also be infected, and rats don’t move far from their home territories. At this rate pandemic 3, even in a world of railways, cars, and dense human populations, would have taken some 25 years to cover the distance that pandemic 1 covered in 3 months. Pandemic 1 made its first appearance in an Egyptian port in 541 and quickly spread around the Mediterranean from Iberia to Anatolia. Within two years of first occurrence it had reached to the wastelands of Ireland and eastern Persia. Pandemic 2, believed to have originated in India, China or the Russian steppes, made its first European appearance in Messina, Sicily in 1347. Within three years it had impacted most of continental Europe, and had even reached Greenland. The fastest overland travel recorded for plague occurred in 664 (pandemic 1), when it took only ninety-one days to travel 385 kilometres from Dover to Lastingham (4.23 km a day)— far faster than anything seen from Y pestis since its discovery in 1894. Pandemic 2’s speed was similar, as Cohn details it:

like the early medieval plague, the “second pandemic” was a fast mover, travelling in places almost as quickly per diem as modern plague spreads per annum. George Christakos and his co-researchers have recently employed sophisticated stochastic and mapping tools to calculate the varying speeds of dissemination and areas afflicted by the Black Death, 1347–51, through different parts of Europe at different seasons. They have compared these results to the overland transmission speeds of the twentieth-century bubonic plague and have found that the Black Death travelled at 1.5 to 6 kilometres per day—much faster than any spread of Yersinia pestis in the twentieth century. The area of Europe covered over time by the Black Death in the five years 1347 to 1351 was even more impressive. Christakos and his colleagues maintain that no human epidemic has ever shown such a propensity to cover space so swiftly (even including the 1918 influenza epidemic). By contrast to the spread of plague in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the difference is colossal: while the area of Europe covered by the Black Death was to the 4th power of time between 1347 and 1351, that of the bubonic plague in India between 1897 and 1907 was to the 2nd power of time, a difference of two orders of magnitude.

All of which raises the question – why was pandemic 3 so much slower than the others? Could it be that Y pestis wasn’t the cause of the earlier pandemics?

mode of transmission

We know that Y pestis is a disease of rats,  and we know that the Black Death was all about rats, so that’s an obvious connection, no? Well, according to Cohn, what we think we know is just wrong. ‘… no scholar has found any evidence, archaeological or narrative, of a mass death of rodents that preceded or accompanied any wave of plague from the first or second pandemic.’ I must say I found this incredible when I first read it, yet Cohn seems to have investigated the sources thoroughly.

Cohn notes that:

while plague doctors of “the third pandemic” discovered to their surprise that the bubonic plague of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries was rarely contagious, contemporaries of the first suggest a highly contagious person-to-person disease. Procopius, Evagrius, John of Ephesus, and Gregory of Tours characterized the disease as contagious and, in keeping with this trait, described it as clustering tightly within households and families; the evidence from burial sites supports their claims.

Pandemic 2 made the word contagium popular among the general public, and the incredible speed of transmission became one of the principle signs of the Black Death, differentiating it, for example, from smallpox, which had some similar physical characteristics. This contagion suggests person to person contact, more typical of pneumonic plague, which is highly infectious and can be transmitted through coughing and sneezing. A later chronicler of pandemic 2, Richard Mead, writing in the 1700s, advised against crowding plague sufferers in hospitals, as it ‘will promote and spread the Contagion’. However, those treating pandemic 3 noted, to their surprise, that plague wards were the safest places to be, and that this particular plague rarely took on the pneumonic form.

Cohn notes that the earlier pandemics were often associated with famine. For example in Alexandria and Constantinople in 618 and 619 famine preceded the plague and appeared to spark it into life. However, pandemic 3, definitely caused by Y Pestis, tended not to thrive in situations of dearth and was instead fed by increased yields. Such yields lead to higher rat populations, and higher rates of possibly infected rat fleas and so higher rates of transmission to humans.

death rates

According to contemporary accounts the first pandemic wiped out entire regions, decimating the inhabitants of cities and the countryside through which it so swiftly passed.  These accounts are backed up by archaeological and other evidence. It’s pretty clear that millions died in the second pandemic too. Compare this to the third pandemic, which spread so slowly and was limited to coastal areas and even just shipping docks. Restricted to temperate zones, this last pandemic resulted in deaths in the hundreds, with never more than 3% of an affected population dying.


Although few quantitative records describe the signs or symptoms of plague for pandemic one, those that do (and Cohn cites 6 different ancient authors) are in general agreement in their descriptions of ‘swellings in the groin, armpits, or on the neck just below the ear’, the classic symptoms of bubonic plague. Procopius of Caesaria also observed that victims’ bodies were covered in black pustules or lenticulae. Pandemic 2, which begins with the Black Death of 1347-52, is marked, on the other hand, by extensive records, both professional and popular – writings about it were amongst the first forms of popular literature.

range and seasonality

Another problem for the view that this has all been the doing of Y pestis, is that pandemics 1 and 2 could strike all year round, but generally settled into a pattern of prevailing in summer in the southern Mediterranean and the Near East, which is not the best season for the flea vector X cheopis. The seasonal cycle of modern plague is quite different, and the range is much more limited.

So all this opens up a mystery. Scientists are agreed that we don’t have a clear-cut story of Y pestis causing horrific disease through rats and fleas over millennia (archaeological and other evidence suggests that rats were scarce in 14th century Europe) , but they’re much in disagreement about what the real story might be. If not Y pestis, then maybe a hemorrhagic virus (one of which causes ebola). Such viruses are notorious for their rapid transmission, their resurgences and their high mortality rates. Pneumonic plague,  the more infectious, lung-infecting form of plague may also be implicated, but this doesn’t appear to agree with most of the described symptoms of pandemics 1 and 2. Other types of fleas, not associated with rats, as well as lice, are also being considered as possible vectors. Some geneticists believe that a variant of pestis may have been responsible. It looks as if genetic analysis is the most likely pathway to finding a solution.

This article got started, as I wrote at the beginning, because someone keen on naturopathy said something about bubonic plague in our staff room. Some plant she brought in, which had great anti-oxidant properties (she clearly hasn’t kept up with the latest findings on anti-oxidants) was also a cure for bubonic plague, or maybe it was a variant of the plant, and the person who discovered the secret of its healing properties died suddenly (presumably not from plague) and the secret was lost to us for centuries…

Written by stewart henderson

December 11, 2014 at 8:50 am

Christianity’s future: 3 national perspectives.

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Since I’m currently off work due to illness I feel like cheering myself up by doing another number on how Christianity is faring in various countries, such as the USA, Britain and France – where I’ll be heading, hopefully, in March-April (France, that is). A nice gloating session might be just what the doctor ordered. So here goes.

the not so united kingdom


Would that nationalism was in as sharp a decline as Christianity is, but that’s one for the future. The UK’s last census was in 2011, as in Australia, so comparisons are irresistible. As of that census, the percentage of Christians was 59.5 (down from 71.8 in 2001), slightly below ours at 61.1 The no religion faction comes in at 25.7%, and unstated at 7.2%. In Australia the nones are still down at 22.3% with 9.4% not clearly stated. So the UK still seems to be ahead of us in the race, but of course I’m being overly simplistic. It’s unlikely that the exact same questions are asked in both censuses, and framing makes an enormous difference. And in any case self-reporting is hardly the best way to get a handle on such a socially pressured subject as religious belief. Not that it lacks any value – the fact that a decreasing percentage of Britishers are saying they’re not religious tells us something about the way those social pressures have eased over time. I think all we can really say from the census figures on Christianity in the UK and Australia is that they’re both travelling in the same direction at roughly the same rate – at least over the last decade or so, because the religious question was only introduced as a voluntary option in the British census in 2001. The term post-Christian is beginning to be used.

However, unlike Australia, the UK has other major surveys of religion, the 3 major ones being the Labour Force Survey, the British Social Attitudes survey and the European Social Survey, all of which, of course, ask different questions. The census in England and Wales asks the question ‘What is your religion?’ and provides a list of option boxes, with ‘no religion’ at the top. Scotland, my birthplace, has a different question – ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, and this slightly more alarming question might account for the larger percentage of the non-religious in that country (or is it just a region?) Some 36.7% of Scots answered ‘none’ to this question in 2011. I find this quite satisfying in that Scotland came under the influence of Calvinism for centuries – a harsh form of protestantism infected with ‘predestination’, a variously understood and variously modified concept which in its bleakest interpretation is entirely fatalistic. Maybe a long dose of that craziness has helped the Scots come to their senses more quickly than their neighbours.

Wikipedia summarises the results of the other surveys thus:

The Labour Force Survey asked the question “What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?” with a response of 15.7% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2004 and 22.4% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2010.
The British Social Attitudes survey asked the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” with 41.22% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2001 and 50.67% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2009.
The European Social Survey asked the question “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” with 50.54% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2002 and 52.68% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2008.

All of which emphasises, again, that the responses are vitally connected to the framing of the question. None of these surveys, I would argue, are reliable in any scientific sense as an account of the actual religiosity of the nation. They all involve self-reporting. That doesn’t mean that they’re worthless of course. They’re particularly useful if you keep asking the same question over time, which is why I don’t favour chopping and changing the question in the forlorn hope of getting a more ‘accurate’ picture.

A surely more telling indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is church attendance. It amuses me to note that, though both denominations are in decline, the overall church attendance of Catholics in the UK is higher than that of Anglicans, mainly due to immigration. It was only a few centuries ago that Catholics were being executed for their faith in England. Fat King Henry must be turning in his gravy. Wikipedia again well summarises the situation:

Currently, regular church attendance in the United Kingdom stands at 6% of the population with the average age of the attendee being 51. This shows a decline in church attendance since 1980, when regular attendance stood at 11% with an average age of 37. It is predicted that by 2020, attendance will be around 4% with an average age of 56. This decline in church attendance has forced many churches to close down across the United Kingdom, with the Church of England alone being forced to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Their fates include dereliction, demolition and residential conversion

I’m sure you all get the drift of the drift.

So the UK has come a long way since Guy Fawkes, along with his aristocratic confederates, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the royal family with them, in the hope of bringing the nation back to the OTR (One True Religion). Since the Act of Settlement (1701) all monarchs have been obliged to ‘join in communion with the Church of England’, which disqualifies Catholics (and all other denominations and religions), but pressure has been brought to bear to end this discrimination, as well as to disestablish the Anglican Church. This seems inevitable, given the rapid decline of that institution. 

the not so united states


The USA has long been in a right religious mess, and some of the reasons for it were canvassed in a short essay at Salon in May. Many other westerners could be forgiven for thinking that the country is a basket case, full of the most bizarre scientific denialism and educational vandalism, a breeding ground for hate preachers, life-denying cultists and home-schooled ignoramuses, but a closer look will reveal much that’s hopeful. The USA, we shouldn’t forget, is the third most populated country in the world, with a population diversity second to none. Even assuming that only 10% of that population is non-religious (a conservative estimate) that’s way more than the entire population of Australia.

The USA, like France, doesn’t measure religiosity in its census, but there are a number of important surveys that can fill in the picture for us. The Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 found that 16.1% of the population was ‘religiously unaffiliated’, which is not so far behind Australia’s ‘no religion’ set, though the extent to which those two sets are comparable could be argued till the end of days. A more recent Pew survey, results published in late 2012, put the unaffiliated figure at just under 20%. Encouragingly, these people overwhelmingly state that they’re not looking for a religion to join (though many believe in gods or are ‘spiritual’) and consider that established churches are overly concerned with money, power, rules and politics. The extreme noisiness of the religious right in the US is having a negative effect on the majority. And the change is really quite rapid, as rapid as that of many other western countries. Here’s an interesting quote from the summary of the 2012 results:

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

This seems to indicate that drops in involvement lead more or less quickly to a drop in actual belief.

Other surveys show a range of results. A 2007 Gallup poll had the number expressing disbelief or uncertainty at around 14%. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 had some 76% of respondents identifying as Christians compared to 86% in 1990. Another survey organisation is the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), which basically provides an overview of all the major surveys, but I’ve found it hard to get anything clear out of its data. It is clearly a pro-religious organisation.

The Wikipedia website dealing specifically with Christianity in the US points out the usual decline, but notes that church attendance is still way up on that in France and Australia. The ARIS survey of 2008, in its commentary, states that the drop in religiosity has slowed considerably since the 90s:

The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

So multiculturalism, as a diluter of traditional Christianity, is one of the many factors contributing to what is undeniable, in spite of arguments that can be had about the pace of change. Christianity is fading, even in its self-proclaimed heartland, and there’s no real likelihood of a reversal.



 France presents the same story only more so. With no census stats, the various major surveys range from 40% to 58% of the people self-describing as Christians, with the non-religious at between 31% and 35%. The average age of believers is rising and church attendance has suffered a spectacular collapse. Evangelical protestant churches are growing, but from a very low base in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The idea that the evangelists are onto something ‘great’, as this commentator has it, seems grossly exaggerated.

Again, what fascinates me is the incredible variation in findings, with only one clear trend identified, that of overall decline. According to some, the non-believers already well outnumber the believers, and Salon has listed France, along with Australia, one of the best countries for atheists.

France appears to be abandoning Christianity more quickly than other western countries, but it’s hard to tell for sure from all the contradictory surveys and questions. As something of a Francophile, I have a particular interest in the history of France’s connections with Christianity, so that’ll be the focus of the rest of this post.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, from the second century CE, Christians were providing headaches for the administration in Gaul as well as elsewhere. Blandina of Lyon became one of the first ‘celebrated’ martyrs of the region, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. While the Romans were tolerant of the religious practices of subject peoples generally, Christianity, with its inwardness, its intransigence and its rejection of eclecticism and syncretism, posed more problems than others. Nevertheless, the persecution of Christians was not by any means as widespread as some later commentators have asserted. The treatment of Christians largely depended on the whims of particular emperors, local tensions and character clashes, and the waxing and waning sense of ‘internal threat’.

Things changed, of course, with the Christianisation of the empire, and the politicisation of the church. One of the first powerful rulers of the region known to us, the brutal Merovingian king Clovis (r.481-511) started out pagan, married a Christian, converted and was baptised at Rheims by the leading bishop. By this time it had already become clear that the secular and the ‘spiritual’ powers needed each other’s support. In fact the network of bishops encouraged by Clovis and other leaders helped to unify the Franks and the Celtic Gauls under a Latinised administrative system, which was a useful adjunct to highly unstable hereditary monarchies. The successors of Clovis squandered his legacy and the secular power eventually fell to a new line, culminating in the reign of Charlemagne, whose association with Pope Leo III helped to bolster his own legitimacy and the power of the papacy. In 799 Leo fled from Rome to the court of Charlemagne, his life in danger from a gang of Roman nobles. Charlemagne chose to support Leo (though he didn’t think much of him), and entered Rome to ensure his reinstatement. In return, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor. It was the most spectacular example up to that time of the effectiveness of church-state collaboration, and it jump-started the soi-disant Holy Roman Empire, a somewhat vague institution that languished on until 1806.

Naturally the Carolingian dynasty faded, and the French nobility was weakened by its lengthy adventures in the crusades, and it wasn’t till the 12th century that a new dynasty, the Capetians, was able to dominate the region. Again, alliance with the church proved essential to the maintenance of power, not only through administration and productive associations with key figures such as the Abbé Suger, but in terms of ritual and display, including the tradition of a sacramental coronation in Rheims.

Of course, tensions between Rome and the French church were bound to arise, and when the Pope tried to interfere with the ecclesiastical decisions of the French king, or vice versa, this would often lead to real blood-letting, with fragile alliances, betrayals and pointless heroics in a political world based on power and gloire. The notoriously 13th century ascetic Louis IX, aka ‘Saint Louis’, actually moved the French monarchy away from the Vatican, anticipating the later idea of divine right direct from Mr Supernatural. He also strengthened the Roman Law system and heavily patronised the arts, and he and his successors presided over a greater nationalisation of religious ideas and practice, as well as the building of many of the great French cathedrals that still bedazzle tourists. Paris became the centre for theological discourse – the only intellectual game in town – with the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard doing their utmost, this side of heresy, to remake the Old Testament god into the BOOB (benevolent omnipotent omniscient being) we’ve come to know and scratch our heads over.

With the printing press in the fifteenth century came a new challenge to Catholic hegemony, leading to the Reformation, as literature and ideas became more widely disseminated, and the practises of the church came under greater scrutiny. The precursor to full-blown protestantism was a kind of religious humanism, associated with such figures as Erasmus of Rotterdam and England’s Thomas More. Jean Calvin, a theology student at the Sorbonne, was influenced by humanist methods of direct connection and interpretation of Biblical texts, and his conclusions regarding faith and predestination naturally caused alarm in some circles. The prominent French Renaissance king, François I, who was at first well-disposed towards the new intellectual trends, finally found them personally threatening, and the persecution of protestants began, and were further stepped up by his less amiable successor, Henry II. Over the next century France was one of the major theatres of the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years War. The only bright period was the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610), a protestant who pragmatically converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne. Much to the disgust of Pope Clement VIII, he issued the famous Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting substantial rights to the Huguenots (Calvinist protestants) while affirming Catholicism as the ‘real religion’. Remarkably liberal for its time, it lasted for less than a century, being revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. The revocation led to an exodus of protestants, and tensions with neighbouring protestant countries (and when I say ‘tensions’, I don’t mean in the modern sense of babble about ‘shirt-fronting’ national leaders, but battles, sieges, massacres and the like – the standard European stuff of those centuries).

The enormous privileges granted to the clergy and the nobility under the ancien regime were a decisive factor in bringing about the French Revolution of 1789. Various failed attempts were made to get these elites to pay taxes or make concessions, but they of course refused, suicidally as it turned out. The revolutionaries declared null and void the King’s divine right to rule, and issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the Supreme Being was redefined in non-denominational terms. The clergy were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Constitution, which most of the higher clergy refused to do. The revolutionaries’ insistence on this measure caused both domestic and European unrest. Pope Pius VI condemned the revolution in 1791, but the French got their own back when their troops expelled him from the Papal States in 1798. The next Pope, Pius VII, was in continual conflict with Napoleon. The 1801 Concordat between the two was used by Napoleon to gain the support of traditional Catholics, as it granted rights to the clergy that had been taken away from them by the National Assembly, but it was heavily tilted towards the French state and away from the Papacy. The Concordat declared that Catholicism was ‘the religion of the great majority of the French’, but not the state religion (as it had been before the revolution), thus preserving religious freedom.

Finally, the Concordat was largely abrogated by the 1905 French law on the separation of the churches and the state, which clearly established state secularism (which had also been declared by the Paris Commune of 1871, but it didn’t last). According to Wikipedia:

The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The French Constitution of 1958 states “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion”. However, France’s republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, subsequent to prior expulsion of many religious orders, declared most Catholic church buildings property of the state (cathedrals) communes (existing village churches), and led to the closing of most Church schools.

France’s 1905 law is still controversial, and it didn’t prevent governments from spending taxpayer funds on Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran and religious Jewish building projects well into the 2oth century. However, the impact on the Catholic church was most substantial, though reconciliation processes between successive French governments and the Vatican have since eased the pain.

This has been a blustering tour through the complex religious history of France, another far from unified nation, with complex regional histories and dynamics. My hat-tip is to Cecil Jenkins’ Brief History of France for much of the detail. It has brought me up to speed on far more than France’s religious skirmishes; it has given me a basis for understanding something more of that country’s queer and unique dirigiste economy and social history.

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2014 at 6:35 am

bronchiectasis and steroids

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My bronchiectasis has just ‘acutely exacerbated’.

Today I’m off work because I’ve got another infection, the first since I finished the course of broad-spectrum antibiotics back in May. The symptoms are an increase in phlegm, a slightly sore throat, a nasty cough and a scratchy voice, not good for teaching. And generally I feel rundown and a little depressed. This morning I visited the doctor for the first time since February. It was a new doctor, as my usual doctor apparently doesn’t work in the mornings. I didn’t want to take any time off work as I’m saving my pennies for an overseas trip, so I was planning to go to work straight afterwards because I didn’t start teaching until 1 o’clock. However the doc put the kibosh on that by giving me a sick certificate for Thursday and Friday, telling me I needed the rest and that I might be infectious. He also prescribed steroids along with the usual antibiotics, in this case Augmentin forte – though I bought the cheapie alternative called Curam Duo Forte – tablets containing a mix of amoxycillin (875mgs) and clavulanic acid (125mgs).

I’m often overly passive and docile with doctors, as with everyone else, and I often don’t clarify my thoughts until after the consultation. So in my usual docile fashion I rang in sick for work straight afterwards, even though this would mean I would lose hundreds of dollars in pay when I could ill-afford it. It’s true that my voice can barely stand the strain at the moment but I enjoy the energy my work gives me. More importantly, I don’t think I’m infectious.

While I recognise of course that our brains often play tricks on us, or more accurately that our brains and our memories aren’t always reliable, that doesn’t always mean that the doctor knows better than we do.

During the consultation the doctor asked me what I thought had caused this latest infection. I said I thought it might be something I ate. He didn’t seem too impressed with that and thought it might be something I picked up from my students, something viral. Hence the idea that I might spread the infection. Here’s the rub though – I actually felt quite certain that it was something I ate, and I know what it was and when it was. And this is not the first time I’ve felt such certainty about one of my many infections. Once it was a glass of wine which gave me a furry tongue, followed by the usual full-blown symptoms, and on other occasions it was food that I’d left a day or so too long in the fridge. These were clearly bacterial not viral infections. On this occasion it was an odd concoction of tabouleh salad, tuna, beans and roast potato that I’d constructed and taken to work for lunch, but had forgotten to eat. I found it later in my bag and scoffed it, half-knowing that I was making a mistake. The first symptoms soon followed.

I wonder how the doctor would have reacted if I’d insisted that it was food and not people that had infected me. It’s not a major issue, but now I also wonder if he’d have given me steroids for a purely bacterial infection. Strangely I didn’t wonder about the steroids until I got home. My neighbour was suspicious of this, saying that steroids were pretty strong stuff. I’ve certainly never had them prescribed for me before and now I wonder why.

According to medicine-net:

Steroids are used to treat a variety of conditions in which the body’s defense system malfunctions and causes tissue damage. Steroids are used as the main treatment for certain inflammatory conditions, such as systemic vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels) and myositis (inflammation of muscle). They may also be used selectively to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome, or gout.

Bronchiectasis would be classified as an inflammatory condition I suppose, but pertaining to the upper airways, and nothing is mentioned specifically about this. Bronchiectasis is, however, a relatively rare condition (though possibly under-diagnosed). I’ve found a really good, thorough account of the treatment and management of bronchiectasis on medscape, but it says nothing about using steroids. So now I’m just a bit concerned, though I’m sure I’ve been prescribed a low dosage.

Actually on closer inspection I have found a section on medscape, dealing with anti-inflammatory therapy for bronchiectasis, where corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatory drugs crop up. I note that I’ve been given prednisolone tablets by the pharmacist (unfortunately I didn’t check the doctor’s prescription before handing it in, and I wasn’t given it back, so I can’t be sure if this was what the doctor prescribed). Prednisolone, according to Wikipedia, is a corticosteroid commonly prescribed for liver failure, but also used for treating auto-immune conditions such as asthma – so now we’re in the ballpark, so to speak. There are known side-effects for up to 5% of users, but i’ve never suffered any side-effects from any drugs I’ve been prescribed, not that I’ve been prescribed many. And side-effects are more often associated with long-term usage – aren’t they?

Medscape reports the literature on inhaled and oral corticosteroids for use with the many varieties of bronchiectasis and finds it promising but not entirely conclusive. I noted this line in conclusion:

A practical approach is to use tapering oral corticosteroids and antibiotics for acute exacerbations..

It almost seems as if my doctor has memorised this line. I’m feeling a bit more reassured now, but I have no idea what ‘tapering’ oral corticosteroids are. Well, I suppose it’s pretty obvious that it means gradual reduction..

Anyway, here’s hoping for a speedy recovery, and I’ve really got to take more care over food.

A few last words – the doc sent me to Healthscope next door to give a sputum sample, which, astonishingly, is the first time i’ve been asked to give one. The trouble is, if the medication works, I might not revisit the doctor for months, and will never find out the results of the tests on my sputum, just as i haven’t received the result of the blood tests I requested at my last consultation. I wanted to know if my mild anaemia had righted itself, as well as all the other health indicators – HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, etc. But they never provide you with the results if you don’t persistently ask for them. This is something I might explore further in another post.

Written by stewart henderson

November 28, 2014 at 12:02 am

exercise is medicine

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I read recently that regular moderate exercise sloshes up the blood, washing immune cells from vessel walls. This brings those cells back into the mainstream so to speak, where they can be more effective in combating infection. It makes no small difference – a simple study in which 500 adults were tracked for 12 weeks found that those who engaged in regular aerobic exercise sessions were found to suffer considerably less from upper respiratory tract infections – precisely my personal area of concern. Levels of immune cells in the blood double during exercise.

There’s also good news in this for those of us who couldn’t become gym junkies no matter how hard we tried. Too much exercise (but that means quite a lot) can undo all the good by raising levels of cortisol, noradrenaline and other stress hormones, which alter immune cell functioning. Stress, though, is another one of those complex indicators of health. Mild bouts of stress can be healthful, again boosting blood levels of immune cells. So don’t relax too much, but don’t overdo it.

Even so, exercise helps with everything, and that’s something worth promoting because the recommended dose of exercise isn’t being swallowed by the majority of people in the west. Of course we’ve always kind of known about the benefits of exercise, but the hard evidence has really been coming in lately. A really interesting study was published in the Lancet in 1953, at a time when the rising incidence of heart attacks was becoming a worry. It compared bus conductors to bus drivers on London’s busy double-deckers. The conductors, who spent much of their working day running up and down steps, had half as many heart attacks as their driver colleagues. This landmark study has of course been followed by many others that have confirmed the positive effects of exercise in reducing the incidence of stroke, cancer, diabetes, liver and kidney disease, osteoporosis, dementia and d barkepression.

So what exactly is the goldilocks zone for exercise? Well, anything is better than nothing, and most of us know we’re not doing enough. I’m not quite a senior citizen yet, but studies have been done with the elderly requiring them to do 40 minute walks three times a week, which is hardly strenuous. I catch a tram to work, which requires a ten-minute walk each way, and then a five minute walk each way to my workplace – 30 minutes a day, five days a week, though it would doubtless be better if those 30 minutes were continuous, and if I didn’t dawdle much of the time. The benefits of such a regime have been shown through before-and-after brain imaging. Expansion of the hippocampi, either through the growth of new brain cells, or greater synaptic connectivity, and a restoration of long-distance connections across the brain.

Mental exercise shouldn’t be forgotten either. It has been known for a couple of decades that intellectual stimulation can provide a kind of ‘cognitive reserve’ which can buffer us against the kinds of physical brain deterioration typical of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, but clearer proofs of this have been gathered recently. Magnetic resonance imaging of Alzheimer’s sufferers has caught the goings-on in the brain while cognitive tasks are being performed. Highly educated people – brain workers  if you will – are better able to develop alternative neuronal networks to compensate for damaged areas. I would assume though that it’s not so much about education but about brain usage. Keep tackling new things. Keep using your brain in new ways. And your body for that matter.

Cognitive reserve is now seen as a real thing, and has been pinpointed as residing in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a key area for learning, short term memory, attention and language. Increased activity in this area suggests flexibility in thinking and problem solving. Information processing efficiency is also a key to a healthy brain. Having a high IQ, something I’ve often been sceptical about in the past, is an indication of information processing efficiency, even if the information is often culturally specific. It appears that physical brain deterioration, from Alzheimer’s, stroke and and other causes, can be fended off by compensating neural network development and increased information processing efficiency in certain people, until the deterioration becomes too great to be compensated for, after which things tend to go downhill very rapidly. By the time the symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear in such people, the  physical damage is already well advanced.

A major message from all this is that you should try to develop lifestyle habits involving physical and mental exercise. Always a work in progress.

I note that one of the in terms these days is ‘hat tip’ (h/t), so h/t for this piece to New Scientist, the collection, edition 3: a guide to a better you.

Written by stewart henderson

November 20, 2014 at 8:19 am

Posted in diet, exercise, fitness, lifestyle

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want to live to 100?

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… It may destroy diseases of the imagination, owing to too deep a sensibility, and it may attach the affections to objects, permanent, important, and intimately related to the interests of the human species.

Humphry Davy,  on the value of science, in ‘Discourse introductory to a  course of lectures on chemistry’, 1802


A great many of us would like to live a long and healthy life, with a greater emphasis on health than length. But both please, if possible, thanks.

I’ve been reading the issues of New Scientist: the collection as they come out. The first issue dealt with the Big Questions, namely Reality, Existence, God, Consciousness, Life, Time, Self, Sleep and Death. Bit of a roller coaster ride, leaving me dizzy, confused, but often enlightened, and sometimes even exhilarated. So, better than a roller coaster. The second issue, entitled The Unknown Universe, took me far out beyond multiverses, quantum loops, energetic dark matter and the eventful horizons of black holes, and essentially taught me that modern cosmology is a mess of competing theories, often competing, it seemed, to be the most egregious ideas that are compatible with mathematical possibility. However, it may be that the studious avoidance of scary maths in these essays/summaries may have made them seem more loopy (or strangulatingly stringy) than they are.

The third issue was more down to earth, and not only earth but me, and you, dear reader. It’s entitled The scientific guide to a better you, and it’s all about longevity, health and success.

So what’s the secret, at least for the first two? Basically, eat healthily, with not too much meat, make sure you have good genes, don’t be too much of a loner (too late for me, I’ve been a loner for 40 years, and that’s unlikely to change, but I’l try, as I always say), be intelligent, active and exploratory. That’s the message of the first half of this issue anyway.

What interested me, though, was the detail. Measurements. Blood sugar, cholesterol, heart rate and many other factors and parameters, most of which I didn’t know I had to be concerned about. The various essays are peppered with these measures of health or lack thereof, but how does your average Jo like me get a measure of these things without pestering doctors on a weekly basis about wellness instead of sickness?

So, for fun, I thought I’d look into these ways of measuring ourselves and see if we can manage them from home. A sort of practical guide to centenarianism and beyond.

1. Body mass index (BMI)

Your BMI is a very rough-and-ready guide to whether or not you’re a healthy weight for your height. Various websites can calculate this for you instantly if you know your height and weight. My current BMI is 26, according to the Heart Foundation, which it regards as ‘overweight’, though very close to the borderline between ‘overweight’ and ‘healthy’. About three years ago my BMI was 29, well into the overweight category, in fact getting close to obese. I decided to eat less, without fasting or ‘going on a diet’, and to try to up my exercise, and over a 2-year period I brought my BMI down from 29 to 23, well into the healthy range. Since then it has crept back up to 26, and I’m struggling to get it back down again. I just need to lose a couple of kilos, and keep them off. The myriad other ways of measuring your health these days might make the old BMI seem outmoded – it doesn’t measure your fat to muscle ratio, for example, or the amount of fat around your heart and other organs – but I find it a useful guide for me, and the cheapest available.

2. Heart rate/blood pressure

Measured in beats per minute, your heart rate naturally varies with exertion, and also with anxiety, stress, illness, drug use and so on. The normal resting heart rate for an adult human ranges from 60 to 100 bpm. You can measure your own heart rate (your pulse) at any time by finding an artery close to the surface. The radial artery on the wrist, the one you see heading in the direction of the thumb, is commonly used due to ease of location, but don’t try it with your thumb which has its own strong pulse. I’ve just located my own wrist pulse and measured it as 62bpm. That’s the first time I’ve ever done it. However, I imagine it would be harder to measure after a bout of HIIT (high intensity interval training), which I sometimes indulge in, or after a moderately strenuous bike-ride. It would be even harder while you’re in the middle of exercise, so that’s where heart rate monitors, including those that can be worn on the wrist, come in handy. A quick google-glance tells me that such wrist devices are selling at $100 to $150. However, caveat emptor, as doubt is being cast on their accuracy. Electrocardiographs (ECGs, or EKGs), which measure the electrical activity of your heart, provide a much more accurate record than heart rate monitors, which are apparently only really effective when you’re at rest. One of the problems is that these optical monitors use light to track your blood, and to get an ‘accurate’ reading, you need to be very still, which sort of defeats the purpose. Reporter Sharon Profis, with the help of cardiologist Jon Saroff of Kaiser Permanente medical center in San Francisco compared various wrist monitor brands with the gold standard EKG measurements, and found them well off-beam especially at over 100 bpm. However, the Garmin Vivofit chest strap monitor, which measures electrical activity, was very accurate. This device can be bought for around $150 in Australia.

3. Cholesterol

Cholesterol’s an essential organic molecule, a sterol, a structural component of our cell membranes. It’s biosynthesised, mainly by our liver cell, often as a precursor to such vital entities as steroid hormones and vitamin D, and researchers have tracked the 37-step process of its synthesis. Cholesterol is transported through the blood within lipoproteins, and that’s where you get HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, of which the former is the one that causes problems. Some 32% of Australian adults have high blood cholesterol, the primary cause of atherosclerosis, leading to clogging of major blood vessels. Ways of lowering your LDL levels include not smoking, avoiding transfats, regular moderate exercise, and healthy eating including fruit, veg, grains and pulses and sterol-enriched foods. But of course you know all that. The big question is, can you measure your cholesterol from home? The current answer appears to be no, according to the Harvard Medical School (though I note that their article is 11 years old). The problem is that home testing kits can’t separate the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol from the ‘bad” (LDL). Measuring your overall cholesterol levels might be useful, but the real issue is the proportion that is LDL, not to mention that cholesterol can also be carried by other molecules such as triglycerides.

 4. Blood sugar/glucose

Glucose is a vital source of energy for the body’s cells, and its levels are associated with the hormone insulin, produced by the pancreas. Blood glucose levels naturally vary throughout the day, and having a level regularly above normal is termed hyperglycemia. Hypoglycemia is the term for low levels. Diabetes (technically Diabetes mellitus) is the disease most commonly associated with high blood sugar. General symptoms are frequent urination, hunger pangs and increased thirst.  The mean normal blood sugar level is around 5.5 mM (millimolars). That’s the international standard measure – the Americans measure it differently, which causes the usual confusion. Not surprisingly, considering the global rise in diabetes, blood glucose meters for use at home are readily available, but they’re mostly specially devised for use by diabetics, supervised by healthcare professionals. You can of course buy one and DIY but you must learn to be inured to pricks, and unless you’re at risk, which I’m not, as I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, don’t have particularly high cholesterol, and have never evinced any diabetic symptoms, it’s probably not worth the investment. The essential test associated with ‘pre-diabetes’ or hypoglycaemia is a glucose-tolerance test (GTT).

5. Sequence your genome

According to the Australian government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC):

Rapid advances in DNA sequencing technologies now allow an individual’s whole genome to be sequenced. Although this is still relatively expensive, it is likely that in the near future it will become affordable and readily available.

Ah, that other country, the near future. But it is a fact that the price is coming down, from $10 million in 2005 to a mere $1 million in 2007 when James Watson’s genome was sequenced. The going rate in 2012 was under $10,000, and this year (2014) the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney became one of only three institutes in the world to deliver whole sequenced genomes at under $1000. However, there’s a problem. Your genome will mean nothing to you without expert analysis and interpretation, at a hefty price tag. So what would be the purpose, from a health perspective, of ‘doing your genome’? If you’re already quite healthy, do you want to spend up to $1000 only to find out that you carry a gene which may pre-dispose you to a disease that’s currently non-preventable? Our genome is very complex, so much so that current thinking on the subject, and especially on the introns, the sections that don’t code for proteins, has become more cloudy than ever. We know, or think we know, that the number of introns an organism has is positively correlated with that organism’s complexity, but that’s about all we know for sure, and  considering the enormous complexity of the interaction between genetics and environment, together with our lack of knowledge of the role of so much of our genome (over 98% of which is non-coding DNA), the question of whether it’s worth sequencing at this time is a live one. Of course if the price comes down to $100, or the price of a latte (which will soon be up around that figure) then it’d be well worth it; you would have it there awaiting scientific breakthroughs on all that non-coding stuff.

6. microbiome

If you’ve been paying attention to the world of human health, you’ll know that the microbiome is all the rage at the moment. the term was coined by Joshua Lederburg, who defined it thus, according to Wikipedia:

A microbiome is “the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space.”

You may well have heard the impressive statistic that you have ten times more bacterial cells (and, most interestingly, archaean cells) growing on or in you than bodily (eukaryotic) cells, though this might become less impressive when you learn that the combined weight of those cells amounts to only a few hundred grams. Still, recent research on the microbiota has turned up some interesting results, especially for health. One finding, which may make it difficult to assess your own microbiome, is that different sets of microbes appear to perform the same function for different people. So you won’t just need to know the genetic content of your microbiome, but its function. Still, we can learn a lot already from our microbiome, according to Catalyst, the ABC science program. For example, we inherit a lot of bacteria from our mothers, via her breast milk, not only directly but because the sugars in breast milk encourage the growth of particular types of bacteria. Most of this gut bacteria does its work in the large intestine or bowel region. They’re anaerobic beasties, so they die when exposed to air. However, recent technological developments (and how often can that story be told) have allowed us to learn far more about them, by sequencing their genes inside the gut. From this we’ve learned that our gut bacteria are vital components of our immune system. And since these bacteria rely on our own diets for their nourishment, the kind of microbiome we have is profoundly related to what we eat. A diverse microbiome results, apparently, from eating a high-fibre diet, and low-fibre processed food, and the ingesting of antibiotics, is reducing that diversity, and contributing to multiple health problems. It appears that a less diverse microbiome finds itself under stress, leading to inflammation, an immune response that can damage our own tissue. As a sufferer from bronchiectasis, a chronic (and incurable) inflammation of the airways due probably to early childhood damage, I’m particularly concerned to limit the extent of inflammation through diet and exercise, so this is probably the aspect of my health I’m most concerned to monitor. And there’s also the relationship between gut bacteria and obesity. Some 62% of Australians are overweight or obese, and I’m one of that majority, and trying not to be.

It has been shown clearly, in mice at least, that a high-fibre diet reduces bronco-constriction, improving resistance to asthma and other airways conditions such as COPD. This is mainly due to the production of short-chain fatty acids by particular bacteria. The short-chain fatty acids are produced though the digestion of dietary fibre. Interestingly, acetate, found in vinegar, is a short-chain fatty acid, and a natural anti-inflammatory, so that’s something I should include regularly in my diet.

Finding out what your particular microbiome is, and how it might align with your health, is a simple if rather unpalatable and ‘intimate’ process. You can apply for a kit from the American Gut Project, an organisation dedicated to researching microbiota. The kit is for obtaining a sample of your ‘biomass’ as they call it, which you then send back to the AGP for analysis. All of this was spelt out in the above-linked Catalyst program, but since that program was aired two months ago, the AGP has been inundated with more biomass than it can deal with, so there’s been a backlog of logs, as it were. I plan to send for a kit anyway. The AGP sends back the results, apparently, with hopefully an analysis of the microbiome easy enough for a layperson to understand.


So there’s six areas to look at, either independently or with the help of your GP or other professionals, in terms of measuring how you’re going in terms of overall health, and there are many more aspects of your bodily chemistry and physiology to check up on – hormones, neurotransmitters, bone density, sight, hearing, lung capacity and so forth. Or you can follow the standard advice on diet and exercise, try to avoid stress and hope for the best. And above all don’t stop laughing and dancing, otherwise life would hardly be worth living.

Written by stewart henderson

November 1, 2014 at 6:36 pm

some interesting beasties: cheetahs

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Sadly I don’t have so much time for writing these days, especially anything too strenuous or research-based, so I think I’ll do a series on organisms that have interested me over the years – or that I’ve just recently been fascinated by, for that matter.

Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, there’s an article to whet the appetite as well as to apply a corrective to our thinking about everyone’s favourite wild cat, the cheetah (the name derives from Sanskrit, and cheetahs are found in Iran as well as Africa, and were probably more widespread in Asia in earlier times). Cheetahs are a vulnerable species, with about 10,000 of them currently existing in the wild. They’re described as a ‘charismatic species’, meaning that they’re utilised a lot as ‘ambassadors’ to draw attention to environmental and habitat issues for wildlife in general – along with elephants, humpback whales, giant pandas, California condors, grey wolves and such.

Cheetahs are, of course, built for speed in every way, though agility, with an incredible acceleration and deceleration rate, is also a key to their success. They can accelerate from zero to 40mph in just three strides – faster than the most sophisticated racing cars. Claims that their lightning runs leave them half-dead with heat exhaustion much of the time are, however, wildly exaggerated, as are the claims that they lose as much as half of their kills to lions and hyenas. In fact, cheetahs use up far more of their energy seeking out or tracking down potential kills than they do actually chasing them. A cheetah sprint takes up only 45 seconds a day on average – that’s less time than I spend on my high intensity interval training.

The key to maintaining cheetahs in the wild, then, is not to add to their greatest and most energy-sapping problem: finding food. Adding obstacles to their habitat, such as fences and enclosures, and depleting that habitat of their favourite food – gazelle, deer and impala, and the odd young zebra or springbok – would make life that bit more painful for them.

Speed, of course, is the cheetah’s big specialisation, what it’s adapted for. In fact over-specialisation is arguably its main problem, as it doesn’t have the bulk or strength to fight off other predatory mammals, all of which annoyingly compete for the same food. It’s light, with a weight that averages around 50 kgs, and its aerodynamically evolved head and body trade speed for strength, meaning that its jaws and teeth don’t have the size or force of other wild cats. It has a flattened ribcage but larger than usual heart and lungs for large intakes of air and fast pumping of blood. It also has a longer and larger tail than most cats, which it uses as a rudder for balance as it sets off on one of its twisting and turning runs. Its claws are only semi-retractable, unlike those of most cats (its genus name, Acinonyx, is Greek for ‘no-move claw’). This gives it extra grip while running. Males and females are the same size and hard to tell apart from distance.

Cheetahs don’t roar but they make up for it with a range of other noises, including purring like a – well, a cat, when experiencing domestic plenitude. They also hiss, spit, growl and even yowl when faced with danger. Cubs make a bird-like chirping sound, and the mother makes a similar sound when trying to locate her young. A sound called churring – no idea what that sounds like – is used on social and sexual occasions between adults. Male cheetahs form lifelong partnerships, often but not always with brothers, while females are solitary, bringing the kids up by themselves. They tend to mate with a variety of males – which hardly makes it mating, really. Interestingly, though the females are regular hunters, they’re not territorial, unlike the males, who practice group territoriality, each member of the gang contributing his scent.

Female cheetahs put their kids – or those that survive, as there’s a heavy infant mortality rate – through a tough survival training schedule before abandoning them at around 18 months. At around 2 years of age the females go their lonesome ways and the males hang together, sometimes combining with other blokes. It seems to work for them. In fact I think I read somewhere that males live longer on average than females, which wouldn’t surprise me. Fending for yourself all the time’s a deadly business, even when it’s all laid on in the big smoke, never mind having to chase your meals every day into old age. So spare a thought for the cheetahs, especially the girls, under-appreciated as always.

Written by stewart henderson

October 26, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Posted in gender, other life, science, Uncategorized

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