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a bit more on cell cultures, cell mortality and patients’ rights

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Human connective tissue in culture, 500x. Image courtesy of Dr. Cecil Fox (photographer)/National Cancer Institute.

Canto: Well, we’ve followed up Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race with Rebecca Skloot’s The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, which intersects with Wadman’s book in describing cell cultures and their value in modern medicine and genetics. So are ready to talk about all this again?

Jacinta: Yes, this book tells a compelling history of the Lacks family as well as a story of the ethics around human cell cultures, based on the HeLa cell line taken from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks in 1951, shortly before she died of cervical cancer.

Canto: A very aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix, to be precise, though the tumour was misdiagnosed at the time.

Jacinta: Yes, her bodily state and her sufferings make for grim reading. And the cells were taken sans permission, in a pioneering era of almost no regulation and a great deal of dubious practice.

Canto: The wild west of cell and tissue culturology.

Jacinta: George Gey, the guy who ordered these cells to be taken, was a great pioneer in cancer and cell culture research, but he and others found it very difficult to keep human cells alive in vitro, so he was much surprised and delighted at his success with Henrietta’s tumour cells.

Canto: They were the first ever cells to live beyond the Hayflick limit, though that limit wasn’t spelt out by Hayflick until 1961.

Jacinta: And wasn’t accepted for decades after that. And the reason for their apparent immortality, a rare thing in untreated cells, was their cancerous nature. Human cancer cells contain an enzyme known as telomerase, which rebuilds the telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. Normally these telomeres, often described as like the protective caps at the ends of shoelaces, shorten and so become less protective with each cell division.

Canto: So if we could stop cancer cells from producing telomerase, you’d stop all that metastasising…

Jacinta: Sounds easy-peasy. And if we could introduce telomerase into non-cancerous cells we could all live forever.

Canto: Bet they haven’t thought of that one. So if this cell line was cancerous, how could they be of so much value? How could they be of any use at all, since the aim, I thought, was to produce ‘clean’ cells, like the WI-38 cells Hayflick produced ten years later? Remember how they had so many problems with monkey cells, which were full of viruses?

Jacinta: Well, forget viruses for the moment, the exciting thing about the HeLa cells was that they stayed alive and multiplied, which was rare, and so they could be experimented on in a variety of ways.

Canto: But did they use the cells for vaccines? The 1954 Salk polio vaccine was tested using these cells. How can you do this with cancerous cells?

Jacinta: Well it was the suitability of these cells for mass-production that made them ideal for test-driving the Salk vaccine, and of course their prolific nature was tied to their cancerous nature – Henrietta’s cancer seemed to be horribly fast-spreading, it was just about everywhere inside her at her death. Her cancer was caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and I’ve read that this may have had something to do with their prolific nature. She also had syphillis, likely contracted from her philandering husband, and this suppresses the immune system, allowing the cancer cells to multiply more rapidly. But even though they were cancer cells they shared many of the properties of normal cells, including the production of proteins and susceptibility to bacterial and especially viral infections. Of course you would never inject HeLa cells into humans, but their malignancy is an advantage in that you get the results of say, viral infection of cells as they reproduce, much more quickly than with normal cells, because of their reproductive rate. It seems old George Gey hit the jackpot with them, though he never made any more money out of them than the Lackses did.

Canto: They initially used rhesus monkey cells to test their antibody levels in response to Salk’s killed polio virus, but they were too hard to get and too expensive, and the HeLa cells were an excellent alternative because they were easily infected by the virus… and they reproduced with unprecedented alacrity.

The malignancy of immortality (or vice versa). A HeLa cell splitting into two new cells. The green spots are chromosomes. Courtesy Paul D. Andrews)

Jacinta: Yes, that’s to say, they readily produced antibodies, and so could be experimented on to produce the level of antibodies to create immunity. But growing cell cultures in vitro and maintaining them in a viable state, that’s been a decades-long learning process. Tissue culture these days is big business, which has led to the murky ethical questions about tissue ownership that Skloot refers to at the end of her book.

Canto: Yes but I for one am quite clear about that issue. I’m more than happy for researchers to use any tissue that comes from, say, a biopsy done on me. Is that tissue mine, when it’s removed from my body?

Jacinta: Well, is it? Think of locks of hair kept from a loved one – something that happens a few times in Skloot’s book. Wouldn’t you be moved by a lock of hair that you knew came from someone you loved but who was no longer around? Wouldn’t you feel you had hold of a part of her? Not just a memory of her?

Canto: Interesting. I think I’d be in two minds about it. I’d think, yes, this is her hair, a small part of her, and that would bring all the emotion of identity with it. But then, what I know about science and cells tells me this is just hair, it’s not what makes her her. It’s nowhere near it. Our hair is discarded all the time.

Jacinta: If you had some of her brain cells? Or heart tissue haha?

Canto: Nothing but ultra-ultra minuscule parts of the whole. And essentially meaningless when disconnected from that whole. But this misses the point that the value of this tissue for research outweighs by far, to me at any rate, the sentimental value that you’re talking about.

Jacinta: But for some people, and some cultures, the intactness of the human entity, after death say, is of deep-rooted significance. Are you not prepared to respect that?

Canto: But we slough off our trillions of cells all the time. Even as a kid I was told we replace our cells every seven years. Of course it’s much more varied and complicated than that, but the general point of constant renewal is true.

Jacinta: Yes but they’re your cells, with your DNA in them, nobody else’s.

Canto: Well people are prepared to be operated on, which inevitably kills or removes cells, and in doing so they give themselves up to experts in healing their bodies and often saving their lives, so it would seem to me pretty mean-spirited not to allow those experts to make use of what’s removed, which is of no obvious use to them.

Jacinta: I think you have a good argument there, but what if these mad scientists use your cells for some nefarious purpose?

Canto: Well, call me a trusting soul, but why would they do that? And what nefarious purpose could they use them for?

Jacinta: Well it mightn’t even be nefarious. With the modern commercialisation of cell and gene technology, they might find your tissue perfect for developing something patentable, out of which they make shitloads of money while preventing independent research on the tissue, so using your cells in a way that you might strongly disapprove of. But you wouldn’t have the slightest say, as things stand today. Rebecca Skloot describes examples of this kind in the Afterword to her book. There’s been a raging debate about commercialisation and gene patents and patients’ rights for some time now in the USA, and no doubt elsewhere, with scientists and other stakeholders ranged along the spectrum. In fact, these are the last words of Skloot’s book, published in 2010:

2009: More than 150,000 scientists join the American Civil Liberties Union and breast cancer patients in suing Myriad Genetics over its breast-cancer gene patents. The suit claims that the practice of gene patenting violates patent law and has inhibited scientific research.

Canto: Right. As her investigations reveal, it’s not just about patients wanting a share of the loot from research on their cells, and so using the courts to bog everything down and hinder that research, it’s often about researchers themselves wanting to cash in, and patients joining with other researchers to try to free up the system for the common good. So how’s the Myriad Genetics case going, and how’s the situation regarding patient rights in this field, several years on?References

Jacinta: Well in the case of Myriad, it was all highly complex and litigious, with suits and countersuits, which the company mostly lost, in particular in a landmark (and unanimous) Supreme Court decision of 2013, in which they found that ‘merely isolating genes that are found in nature [in this case the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes] does not make them patentable’. But of course this wasn’t so much about patients’ rights in the material that was once part of their bodies. It’s not all about money – though much of it is, and if you don’t want the money landing in lawyers’ pockets, the best thing is to have clear guidelines, disclosure, and fully developed and complex consent procedures. My impression from doing a fairly shallow dive on the issues is that we’re a long way from sorting this out, in an increasingly complex and lucrative field. Our own federal government’s NHMRC has a booklet out, available on PDF, called ‘Ethics and the exchange and commercialisation of products derived from human tissue: background and issues’, which is already six years old, but I don’t see anything in the legislative pipeline.

Canto: Looks like an issue to be followed up, if we have the stomach for it.

Jacinta: It pays to be informed, that’s one obvious take-away from all this.

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010
Meredith Wadman, The vaccine race, 2017

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2017 at 12:22 pm

nones, rinos and new australians – we’re becoming more secular, but also more religiously complex

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So the census data on religion, and everything else, has just come out, and it wasn’t as I’d predicted (in my mind). I expected a rise in the nones but I opted for a more conservative result, partly because of so many wrong predictions (in my mind) in the recent past, but mainly because I didn’t really expect the accelerating rise in recent censuses to continue for too much longer, I expected a few wobbles on the path to heathenism. Not so much two steps forward and one step back, more like a mixture of giant strides and baby steps.

So the result is encouraging and more people are taking note and it has clear implications for areas of social and political policies in which religion plays a part, such as funding for religion in schools, marriage equality, abortion rights, euthanasia, tax exemptions for religious organisations, school chaplains and the like.

So let’s take a closer look at the findings. The graph I present at the top of this post is identical to the one I posted about 5 years ago, except that the last bar, representing the 2016 figures, is added. And it’s quite a spectacular finding, showing that the acceleration is continuing. The drop in the assertively Christian sector is way bigger than expected (in my mind), from a little under 60% to just over 50%. That’s really something, and there’s no doubt that figure will be well under 50% by next census. So much for the twilight of atheism – at least in this benighted backwater. The figure for the assertively non-religious has taken a bigger jump than in any previous census – we only started measuring the category in 1971. That was a surprise, as was the size of the drop in Catholics (and the Anglican population continues to diminish). The figure of 30.1% for the nones, up from 22.3% in 2011, should be supplemented by a goodly percentage of the ‘not-stated/inadequately described’ category, which makes up about 10%, barely changed from last census. This would make for a figure of more than a third of our population professing no religion.

The figure for ‘other religions’ continues to rise but it’s still under 10%. It’s hardly cause for concern exactly, but we should always be vigilant about maintaining a thoroughly secular polity and judiciary. It has served us, and other secular countries, very well indeed. Meanwhile the mix of other religions makes for greater complexity and diversity, and hopefully will prevent the dominance of any particular religious perspective. We should encourage dialogue between these groups to prevent religious balkanisation.

These results really do give hope that the overall ‘no religion’ figure, now at around 30%, will overtake the overall Christian figure, at about 51%, in my lifetime. If the trend continues to accelerate, that may well happen by 2026. Meanwhile it’ll be fascinating to see how these results play out in the political and social arena in the near future, and what Christian apologists have to say about them.

Of course, the census hardly provides a fine-grained view of the nation’s religious affiliations. I’ve not said much about the ‘rino’ population before – that’s those who are ‘religious in name only’. In fact I only heard that acronym for the first time two days ago, but I’ve long been aware of the type, and I’ve met a few ‘Catholics’ who fit the bill. It really does gripe me that more of these people don’t come out as non-believers, but of course I can’t get inside their heads. Certainly church attendance has dropped markedly in recent years, but it’s impossible to know whether these nominal believers would follow religious lines on hot-button topics like euthanasia or abortion.

The census results, as always, have been published with accompanying ‘expert’ commentaries, and on the religious question they’ve said that the figures don’t really give comfort to Christians or atheists. It’s cloud cuckoo talk, but it doesn’t surprise me. The results speak volumes and give plenty of comfort to those who want religion to be kept well out of politics, and who never want to see a return to powerful Christian lobbies and their incessant and often ridiculous propaganda. Politicians, please take note.


a smart ploy, with serious overtones for gender equality

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This is serious, mum: striking a blow for common-sense and against gender-regulated dress-codes. CREDIT: DEVON LIVE / SWNS.COM

I heard an amusing story on the morning news about young male students in England protesting the absurd imposition of a strict long trousers dress code in all weathers at some local high school, where the girls, of course, are allowed – or rather, required – to wear skirts. It reminded me of my days in high school in the early seventies when we were gathered together, boys on one side, girls on the other, to hear our deputy head launch a tirade against ‘long, scruffy hair’. Of course, he was talking only about boys, who henceforth were banned from having hair below the collar. Of course I couldn’t help but notice that all the girls’ hair, of indeterminate scruffiness, hung below that level. I also noted with interest that the deputy head was completely bald.

More than forty years on I still fume at that arbitrary diktat, such is my rabid anti-authoritarianism, but of course I didn’t then have the courage, or the power, to make a protest. Forty-odd years on and these English schoolboys have staged a protest that’s magnificently rebellious, non-violent, eye-catching, intelligent and humorous, by coming to school in the standard uniform – for girls. Interestingly, the media were on hand to capture the spectacle and to interview the lads, who were articulate and positive about the comfort and style of their skirts. The media presence suggests to me the collusion of parents, and a deal of planning leading up to the big day….

So Dr Google reveals that the boys were from Isca Academy in Exeter, Devon, and accompanying photos reveal the boys’ obvious delight in their ploy. I sincerely hope it was entirely their idea. The protest has had immediate effect, with a new policy on shorts to be adopted ‘subject to consultation’. The problem with this is that there’s a heatwave on now in England, so the boys likely won’t be allowed their shorts until the hot weather is over. I’m hoping they’ll continue with their skirts while the heatwave lasts. That would be the most logical and practical solution. However, the gender-segregating stupidity of our general society, never mind the petty regulations of what looks to be a conservative, elitist Devon school, will probably not permit that. The school itself is using climate change as an excuse for a permanent withdrawal of its long-trousers rule, rather than admitting that the rule is idiotic at any time – though perhaps no more idiotic than most dress rules that segregate the genders.

It seems like a minor issue, but I don’t think so. It goes to the heart of gender equality. Dress codes that clearly separate the genders – and I’m leaving aside the LBGTQ etc minefield – are never a good idea. And this of course includes hairstyle codes. For a start there’s the impracticality. Both codes would have to be equally flexible to suit weather conditions as well as working conditions, and to suit personal choice. It would be manifestly unfair, for example, to restrict the length of boys’ hair when girls’ hair length is unrestricted. And it would be manifestly unfair to impose trousers on boys and skirts on girls when weather conditions will differentially affect the genders because of their uniforms, not to mention differentially affecting their freedom to engage in a range of other activities, for example in the rough and tumble of the playground. To manage this flexibility with two separate, and highly differentiated dress codes, would be virtually impossible. Not to mention that this stark separation doesn’t represent the reality of gender. Neurological studies reveal that there’s no categorical difference between the male and the female brain, only statistical differences, and the variation within female brains and within male brains is far greater than the difference between the genders. This should be seen in our choice of clothing too, but I think we’re still constrained too much by myths of masculinity and femininity, even in our casual dress. We need to keep working on it.

There’s another, more important issue, though, about highly differentiated male/female dress codes. When you have stark differences like these there are always associated values. Differences in type are generally seen as differences in quality. For example, a dress, of whatever design, is rarely viewed in the same businesslike way as long trousers or a suit. Suits radiate a kind of standardised, more or less faceless power, and women rarely wear them and are certainly not encouraged to do so. Of course it’s hard to say what came first – the suit, which then invests the male with power, or the male, who invests the suit with power – but it seems to me the power differential is real, and a more diverse dress code, best encouraged from early childhood, would help to break that down.

And this brings me, finally, to a hot-button issue: the burqa, and also the niqab and other variants. Many of the discussions around banning the burqa have to do with issues such as identification, but this misses the clear-cut point that the burqa, in particular, is a cultural symbol of female inferiority, and nothing else. That’s all it is. That’s what it’s for. And cultures that treat women in this way, with or without their own collusion, are in violation of basic human rights. Cultures that impose the burqa will try to present arguments for its use that are as reasonable as they can possibly make them to a global audience, but they can’t argue with the evidence that the women in those cultures have far less freedom, opportunities and power than the men.

This is the point, for me. Some cultures are better than others, and the best cultures are those more in harmony with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the human values that underpin that declaration. The best cultures are also those most in keeping with what science and history tell us about human nature – and they tell us a lot. If we didn’t have cartloads of information about what kinds of culture or society allow us to thrive, we wouldn’t be able to develop analyses such as the OECD better life index, which currently measures 38 countries through 11 parameters including jobs, safety, community, education, environment and life satisfaction. Australia currently ranks second behind Norway, after being number one for three consecutive years (the OECD is headquartered in Paris).

In December last year, in an article titled “Why Australia needs a debate on the burqa ban”, Andrew Macleod, a business leader, speaker and commentator, wrote ‘I believe every culture can set the customs and norms that they wish.’ This is, of course, fair enough, it’s like saying ‘I believe everyone has a right to their own opinion’, but that doesn’t mean every opinion has to be respected, or is worthy of respect. Particular customs and norms can and should be challenged. Macleod, in his article, takes the ‘when in Rome’ view. You should adapt your behaviour and practice to the norms of the country you’re visiting or living in. I would follow that advice too, but not out of respect – merely out of survival. I wouldn’t want to land up in a foreign jail or be beaten half to death by an angry mob. More importantly – and it’s easy for me because I’m poor and can rarely afford to travel anyway! – I would research any country before visiting it, to ensure that it has customs and laws worthy of respect. I’ve often been urged by friendly students to go and visit their native countries, but, not being a businessman or a seasoned traveller, I haven’t the slightest interest in visiting a country that doesn’t uphold basic human rights, even for a day.

Of course I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, stop people from other countries visiting Australia, and I don’t think an outright ban on the burqa would be a good idea, though I think sensible laws relating to such apparel in certain situations should be enacted. I’d want to ensure also that there is vetting – not to ensure conformity with ‘Australian values’, but in conformity with global human values and rights. You can’t, and shouldn’t try to, coerce people into espousing such values. We need to show by example the value of such values. The OECD only measures 38 countries, and they’re mostly western countries with market economies and established democratic institutions – advanced countries as they’re called. We’re internationally recognised as one of the best of them, and should be able to advertise ourselves as a country whose values are worth adopting, without resort to the breast-beating nationalism that too many Americans, and Australians, indulge in (and such values have nothing discernible to do with speaking near-perfect English).

Do I look too modest in this? Clothing to make the heart sink

Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2017 at 2:42 pm

on the preliminary report into the future of the NEM – part 2

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Chapter 5 of the report focuses on the challenges to NEM system reliability caused by increasing VRE penetration, and on possible reforms to the system to accommodate these changes. Price signals, bidding, and market cap prices and floors, as well as many other terms dealt with in this chapter, are definitely outside my sphere of knowledge or interest, but I feel duty bound to try and make sense of them. For a useful beginner’s guide to the NEM, check out this ABC site, though it dates from 2010, and it’s fascinating to note how things have changed since then. The AEMO was only established in 2009.

The NEM is an ‘energy-only’ market, rather than a capacity market. An energy-only market is one in which the companies generating energy are paid for the electricity they sell. In a capacity market they would be paid for keeping generation capacity available to cover what might be a fluctuating demand. With an energy-only market, producers would presumably be focused on demand, not wishing to provide more of something they can’t sell when demand is down, as it has been in recent times. However, base load demand, which is intermittent and unpredictable, becomes a particular problem when investment in the kind of generators that provide base load power is low. The report has this to say on the matter:

The NEM relies on price signals (subject to market price caps and floors), performance standards and market information to incentivise the development and retirement of generation infrastructure. When there is sufficient baseload supply, average prices tend to be low, signalling that no new investment in base load generation is needed. When base load supply tightens, average prices increase, signalling that investment in base load generation is needed. Peaking generators respond to similar patterns but look to higher price periods associated with peak demand.

I don’t really understand this, especially the bit about peaking generators, which sounds as if there are separate generators for peak demand, but that can’t be right. In any case, what this chapter tells me is that the economics of electricity generation in a transforming and uncertain market are fiendishly difficult to comprehend and control. The review ends the chapter, and all other chapters, with consultation questions which help concentrate the mind on the issues at stake. These include questions about the NEM’s reliability settings, liquidity in the market for forward contracts to ensure supply for business and commercial enterprises (and the effect of increasing levels of VRE on forward contracts, and how this can be catered for), and other questions about creating or ensuring future investment.

Chapter 6 deals with the problem of the seemingly ever-increasing cost of electricity to the consumer. The chapter divides itself into sections on wholesale costs and retail pricing. It seems Australia no longer experiences low electricity costs by OECD standards. Network investments have recently driven prices up, and further rises are expected due to generator closures, the international price of gas, and constraints on gas supply. Again the report emphasises the role of gas, at least in the interim:

Gas has the potential to smooth the transition to a lower emissions electricity sector. Gas generation provides the synchronous operation that is key to maintaining technical operability with increased renewable generation until new technologies are available and cost-effective. Furthermore, gas is dispatchable when required.

It seems there’s an intergovernmental understanding that reform is desperately needed to develop and incentivise the local gas market. There are many roadblocks to successful reform, which are currently affecting wholesale costs which will lead to higher retail prices.

Some 43% of current residential electricity prices are made up of network charges, mostly for distribution. Many network renovations were necessary to meet revised standards. A 2013 Productivity Commission inquiry criticised ‘inefficiencies in the industry and flaws in the regulatory environment’ in respect of the planning of large transmission investments and management of demand. Consumer concern about rising prices is driving reform in this area, but we’re yet to see any clear results. Also, there is a difficult balance to be struck between system reliability and cost. A significant proportion of consumers have expressed a willingness to live with reduced reliability for reduced cost.

There has been a difficulty also in forecasting demand, and therefore the spread of cost. Reduced peak demand in the period 2008 to 2013 wasn’t foreseen. The reduction, likely driven increasing electricity costs, was a result of many factors, such as solar installations, energy efficiencies and reduced consumption. There’s a plan to introduce ‘cost reflective pricing’, which means ‘charging prices that accurately reflect the cost of providing network services to different consumer groups’. This is expected to reduce peak demand overall, as will increasing use of solar and, in the future, battery storage.

Retail pricing is another matter, and according to the report there is a lack of transparency in the retail market. Retailing electricity is obviously complex and involves covering wholesale costs as well as billing, connections, customer service, managing bad debts, marketing, return on investment, inter alia. We can only determine whether the retail market is operating fairly when these costs are open to scrutiny.

Chapter 7 deals with energy market governance from a national, whole-of-system perspective. The report stresses urgency on this, though given the complexity of the system and the divided views of policy-makers, it’s unlikely that decisions on integrating the system and making it more flexible will be forthcoming in the immediate future. The governance of the NEM is divided between policy-maker (the COAG Energy Council), rule-maker (AEMC), operator (AEMO) and regulator (AER, the Australian Energy Regulator). None of these bodies, the report notes, are integrated with bodies advising on emissions reduction. Again, the report doesn’t advance a plan for an improved governance system, but posts consultation questions for how improvements might be made. These include amendments to various rules and guidelines, methods for improving accountability and transparency, and expedited decision-making in a rapidly transforming market.

The report includes a number of appendices, the first and most important being a comparison of the NEM with other energy systems and markets worldwide, including those with a large market share of VRE, such as Denmark and Ireland. It is noted that the transformation of these markets, as well as larger markets in Spain and Germany, is being managed apparently without compromising energy security. However, the variety and complexity of many overseas markets and systems makes comparisons well-nigh impossible for someone as uninitiated as myself. Suffice to say that the role of interconnectors for system security is very important in many European regions, and support from governments for a more flexible system to accommodate VRE is more widespread.

Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2017 at 9:09 am

Limi girl – part 3

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Jacinta: So it’s been a while, but let’s return to that fascinating movie about identity, ambition, entrapment and dislocation, Limi Girl.

Canto: After this poignant moment when Xiumei and Heigo recognise the difficulty of living independently, of controlling the forces around them, Heigo announces his arranged marriage to Shugio – ‘but it’s you I want to marry.’ When Xiumei rather cruelly ticks him off about this, he apologises, says he was joking.

Jacinta: And he clearly wasn’t, poor fellow. He’s fighting a losing battle.

Canto: Men chase, women choose. Desperately, he warns her that going to college is no guarantee of a good future. But she’s resolute in her irresolute way – it’s the closest thing to her dream. She walks off, leaving him to wonder if the chase is off.

Jacinta: In the next scene we see Shugio at home, apparently mixing farm work with school work – first writing on a blackboard (there appears to be a calculator on the table), then sifting some kind of foodstuff, then reading some paper. It looks she might be learning some basic literacy and numeracy. She looks happy, no doubt dreaming of her marriage, till she sees Xiumei go by at the bottom of the hill, followed by Heigo. It’s more like a funeral procession than a chase, though. Angrily, she throws a basin of water down towards him.

Canto: Poor Heigo’s not too popular with the womenfolk. The next scene is quite obscure for non-Mandarin speakers. Heigo’s home with young Gaidi, having cooked her dinner. He finds her absorbed in watching a Chinese TV program with a lot of people staring at the Chinese flag, with a soothing voice-over. Looks like propaganda. He turns away, looking slightly perturbed.

Jacinta: Yes, don’t know what to make of it. But in the next scene Gaidi is in bed with her aunt, and has woken up in the middle of the night. She says she wants to go to school. To college in Szichuan, like Xiumei. To find her mother and father. So presumably the program she was watching has influenced her. Her aunt isn’t sympathetic. Shugio didn’t go to school and is having a good life. Xiumei, on the other hand… besides, she doesn’t have the money to waste on such things.

Canto: So Xiumei is being denigrated, but the more aspirational, such as Gaidi, see her as an inspiration. In the next scene, Xiumei is out with her fellow-villagers,  all female, working in the ‘fields ‘(actually tough, wooded mountainsides) digging up fleece-flower roots (used in TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – and therefore of very doubtful efficacy). One of the girls steals a root that she has dug up, leading to a confrontation. Another girl joins in and they mock the ‘college student’, who finally storms off, vowing to go back to college. Clearly there’s jealousy here, and a fear/dislike of ‘difference’, typical of a traditional culture.

Jacinta: I’m interested in these fleece-flower roots. Apparently they’re used for hair growth by ‘increasing blood circulation’, but that was on a beauty site. A google search turns up numerous sites, none of them particularly trustworthy in my estimation. A Chinese site states this, in quite scientific-sounding, if garbled, language:

Modern researches showed that fleeceflower root has effects in lowering blood lipids and sugar, preventing atherosclerosis, immune enhancement [?], expanding blood vessels, promoting adrenal gland secretion and blood cell productions, smooth heart and brain circulations [?], protecting liver functioning, enhancing neural and bowel transmissions [wow?!], promoting hair growth, anti-septic and anti-aging [?].

All of which sounds absurdly impressive, but the reference it provides takes us nowhere. Still, I hope it really is the good oil, for the Limi people’s sake…

Canto: Yes, there are no reliable scientific treatments of this ‘superflower’ on the search list, and Wikipedia merely tells us that ‘fleeceflower’ is a common name for several different plants, so it’ll be a tough job getting to the truth of it all. And the fact that this somewhat marginalised culture is relying, at least in part, on these doubtful TCM products for survival is another worrisome sign.

Jacinta: I like the way Xiumei stands up for herself when she’s mocked. She’s always feisty. So she heads back home with her donkey, but when she stops to drink at a stream, her donkey jogs off, after shrugging off its load – baskets full of plants. Xiumei has to carry the load herself. Meanwhile Gaidi, who recovers her donkeys, sets out with Haigo to find and help her. They find her struggling uphill with her baskets. Heigo chides her for ‘being like this’ – presumably referring to her stubborn independence. Xiumei, exhausted, complains tearfully that everybody, even the animals, are bullying her. Nevertheless she lets herself be ‘rescued’ by her ‘sister’ and her suitor. They ride off on what appears to be the village motorbike.

Canto: Yes, a most versatile machine, now carrying three people and a couple of hefty baskets. Next we see Shugio, again doing physical work – she appears to have a herbal medicine-type business operating from home – together with some kind of study, as she examines papers. She sees Heigo arrive from her window, with baskets, and looks pissed off. Heigo announces that he has come to sell herbs. Shugio’s angry because she knows the herbs have been harvested by her arch-rival Xiumei. She agrees to buy the stuff but – never again! Heigo then returns with the empty baskets to Xiumei and Gaidi, who are hiding round the corner. He hands Xiumei the money from Shugio, then tries to talk her out of trying to earn money for her education in such a piecemeal, grinding way. This time young Gaidi speaks up, defending her ‘sister’ and announcing that she too will earn money by her hard work, so that she can go to college in Sichuan and find her parents. Still Heigo insists on giving Xiumei some money, which she reluctantly accepts via Gaidi.

Jacinta: And these scenes highlight the interconnectedness of village life, where enemies must still have commercial connections, where one person’s actions influence another’s – everyone is in each other’s way, and co-operation is necessary for survival.

Canto: So the trio ride off again on the motorbike, taking Xiumei home, apparently with Shugio’s blessing, though Heigo claims, probably rightly, that she’s only faking civility.

Jacinta: Next we see that Xiumei and Gaidi have been dropped off, and then the two females separate, at a kind of outdoor entrance constructed of wood. I’m fascinated by the depictions of rural life here – everything is indoor-outdoor, a far cry from our constructed indoor worlds. Anyway, it seems the pair live side by side, but not together. Or maybe Gaidi is just seeing her elder ‘sister’ to the door.

Canto: In the next scene we have book-burning, always a bad sign, and a heavy symbol. Xiumei’s father is angrily tearing up her college books and throwing them into the fire. Her mother rescues some of them, then Xiumei arrives and protests passionately. Her father, half-brought to his senses, half-relents and stomps off. Her mother consoles her, defends her tormented husband, and brings news of the village gossip. She shouldn’t be hanging out with the engaged Heigo, and she should reconsider all this college malarky. Xiumei, devastated and tearful at all these forces arrayed against her, sobs out that she ‘will not submit to fate’.

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Jacinta: It’s another powerful yet low-key moment. I want to shout for her and I want to cry. How well this captures the struggles of the poor. No, not the poor, but those trapped in a web of culture, a culture that understandably wants to maintain itself as it has been for centuries, huddled in a sense with its back to the changing, widening and deepening world around it. We often see these cultures, off-handedly, as lacking, smothering – their shared knowledge of soil, seasons and locality irrelevant to the modern world. Xiumei is half-keen to strip off that knowledge and take on modern clothing, but she’ll inevitably be caught between two worlds and may not succeed or be happy in either.

Canto: Well meanwhile life and the movie goes on. In the next scene, Xiumei’s tormented father visits her as she sleeps in her bedroom, tries to make sense of the schoolbooks there, the posters on her wall, and tucks her in gently. Next morning, Heigo is waiting on his motorbike to take Xiumei to the fields, but she ignores him, saddling up her donkey. As she passes him, she says that his fiancée should ‘watch her mouth’ – presumably it’s Shugio who’s spreading the gossip – and her father later shouts to him a reminder that he’s due to be married (the poor sod), and he also reminds him who the motorbike belongs to.

Jacinta: Yes, but without telling the viewers. Who does that bloody bike belong to? Maybe it’s a community bike. Maybe he’s reminding Heigo of the community values he’s apparently trashing as he chases Xiumei while being engaged more or less against his will to Shugio. The cultural web is doing its ensnaring job.


Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2016 at 9:58 am

touching on the complex causes of male violence

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A bout of illness and a general sense of despair about blogging has prevented me from posting here for a while. For my health and well-being I’ll try to get back on track. So here’s a brief post on my hobbyhorse of the moment.

It surprises me that people could try to argue with me about the violence of men compared to women, trying to explain it away in terms of physical size – I mean, really? And then, when this doesn’t fly, they point to individuals of established combativeness, the Iron Lady, Golda Meir, and why not mention Boadicea, or [place name of fave female serial killer here]?
And it really demoralises me when this argumentative cuss is a woman. I mean I love a feisty female but really…
It reminds me of a scenario from my not-so-youth, when I briefly hung out with a perverse young lass who insisted with unassailable feistiness that men were clearly more intelligent than women (by and large, presumably). It certainly made be wonder at how intelligence could be turned against itself. But was it intelligence, or something else?

But let’s get back to reality. Men are more violent than women in every country and every culture on the planet. This is a statistical fact, not a categorical, individual claim. Of course there are violent women and much less violent men. That isn’t the point. The point is that you cannot sheet this home to sexual dimorphism. Two examples will suffice. First, look at death and injury by road accident in the west – in countries where both men and women are permitted to drive. The number of males killed in road accidents is considerably higher than females in every western country. In Australia males are almost two and a half times more likely to die this way than females, and in some countries it’s more, but it’s everywhere at least double. The WHO has a fact sheet On this, updated in November 2016:

From a young age, males are more likely to be involved in road traffic crashes than females. About three-quarters (73%) of all road traffic deaths occur among men. Among young drivers, young males under the age of 25 years are almost 3 times as likely to be killed in a car crash as young females.

The second example is youth gangs, including bikie gangs. These are, obviously, predominantly male, their purpose is usually to ‘display manhood’ in some more or less brutal way, and, again obviously, they can’t be explained away in terms of size difference. Other causes need to be considered and studied, and of course, they have been. Some of these causes are outlined in Konner’s book, but I can’t detail them here because I’ve lent the book out (grrr). An interesting starting point for thinking about the social causes of male violence is found in a short essay by Jesse Prinz here. Prinz largely agrees with Konner on the role of agricultural society in sharpening the male-female division in favour of males, but I think he oversimplifies the differences in his tendency to apply social explanations, and he says nothing about gene expression and hormonal factors, which Konnor goes into in great detail. It seems to me that Prinz’s line of reasoning would not be able to account for the reckless, life-threatening behaviour of young male drivers, for example. While there is clearly something social going on there, I would contend that something biological is also going on. Or something in the biological-social nexus, if you will. Clearly, it’s a very complex matter, and if we can uncover hormonal or neurotransmissional causes, that doesn’t rule out social factors playing a regulatory role in those causes. Social evolution, we’re finding, can change biology much more quickly than previously thought.

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2016 at 11:59 am

women in science, solutions, and why nobody reads my blog, among other things

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Okay I’ve written facetiously about getting rid of men, or seriously (but facetiously) reducing their proportion of the populace, but in future I want to look at real solutions to a problem that I think is already being addressed but far too patchily and slowly – the problem of male power and dominance. The general solution, of course, is the ascent of woman, to paraphrase Jacob Bronowski via Darwin, and how to promote and quicken it. (Incidentally I’ve just discovered that ‘The Ascent of Woman’ is a four part documentary on women’s history, recently produced for the BBC by Dr Amanda Foreman – look forward to watching it).

However, before continuing I want to issue a plea for help. My blog, which I’ve been writing for many years now, has never had much of a readership, due probably to my inability to network, or even communicate much with others (I’d rather not think it’s anything to do with my writing skills). However, last month even that minuscule readership virtually collapsed, as I recorded my lowest number of hits since my first month of blogging. I’ve soldiered on, but now at the end of September I find this month’s numbers even worse. I feel I need to make a decision about the blog’s future – How do I increase the numbers? Does the blog need a makeover? Can I blame the attention-span of others? I find if I write short pieces, they don’t really cover anything in depth, but I know also that the in-depth pieces, the ones I work on hardest, often get the least attention. Should I just give up and go back to journal writing? At least that way I won’t be faced with the world’s indifference…

Anyway, enough about me – it’s interesting that when you start focusing on an issue, you hear about it everywhere, everybody seems to be talking about it. Today, listening to a podcast of the ABC Science Show, I heard that teenagers are our biggest killers, worldwide, predominantly through motor vehicle accidents. And of course we’re talking largely of male teenagers. The researcher announcing this was female, and, typical female, she was complaining about us tackling this old problem (this has been the global situation for some sixty years) in the same old piecemeal way, rather than though global collaboration in researching and trying to figure out workable solutions to what is clearly a global problem. It was clear from this passionate speaker (and mother of teenage children) that with more females leading research in this and other fields, we’ll get more collaboration and quicker and more effective solutions. And when Robyn Williams, our honourable Science Show anchor, asked the researcher a double-barrelled question – is this teenage problem a male one, and should teenage boys be banned from driving? – her honourable response was ‘yes, and yes’.

The question is – would a law specifically targeting boys/young men as drivers ever be implemented? Of course, many males would describe it as discriminatory. And of course it does discriminate, because the statistics are clear. But why, a young male might ask, should I be treated as a statistic? I’m not like other young men.

It’s a valid point, and I can’t see an obvious way of screening out the potentially safe young men from the potentially dangerous ones. So all we could acceptably do is raise the driving age for all, preferably globally, which would effectively discriminate against the statistically safer drivers, the females. Still, I like the idea of a push, led in the main by women, for a discriminatory driving age policy backed by science. It would raise the profile of the issue, bring women together in an excellent cause, potentially save lives, and feature as another small episode in the ascent of women.

Of course it wouldn’t solve the terrible wee problem of young kids stealing cars and killing and maiming others and themselves for pumped-up kicks…

Written by stewart henderson

October 1, 2016 at 8:39 am