Thursday, July 15, 2010

I miss getting stung

The first letter I remember writing was a postcard to my father. Written in the scrawl of a three-year-old, the message took up the entire writing space on the card. The message was “I got stung by a bee.” That was a big event and seemed worth writing to my father about. These days, I suppose a three-year-old kid with such an important message would send an SMS on her mobile telephone.

A couple of days ago, I was walking in a nearby city park and admiring the many heads of white clover growing in the grass, and my mind turned back to the painful lesson I had learned at the age of three about walking barefoot on a lawn filled with clover. The prospect of getting stung by a bee freighted the adventure with the thrill that goes with risk. But as I looked out over the clover in the city park a few days ago, I noticed something very odd. There was not a bee to be seen anywhere. Where there should have been hundreds or thousands of bees, there was not one to be seen.

Absences always get my attention, and the absence of the bees in the clover made me go looking at flowering shrubs and bushes that usually attract the critters, and I saw no bees anywhere. Their absence seemed ubiquitous.

I listen to quite a few science programs on the radio, broadcast by National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (a radio and television network funded by the Canadian government and based on the belief that there are people scattered around the country who would actually like to be informed and to hear intelligent discussion on important issues—think of it as the antithesis of Fox News and MSNBC). A few weeks ago on one of the several science programs I regularly listen to, there was a feature on an Australian biologist who has dedicated his life to studying all kinds of bees. He was talking about the dramatic worldwide drop in the populations of just about every species of bee. Whether one looks at North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe or Australia, bees are dropping like flies.

The decline of bees is very worrying, given that a large percentage of the food crops that the human race has become dependent on growing and eating are pollinated almost exclusively by bees. While it's true that pollen attaches to the hair of cats and dogs and other furry quadrupeds, nothing is as efficient as bees at delivering pollen to where it does the most good in fertilizing plants. It's not just that bees are fun to watch and add a touch of adventure to walking barefoot through the clover. Our lives depend on them. We will miss them, but not for long. Most of us will die before we have had a chance to cultivate protracted nostalgia.

So what accounts for the silence of the bees? There are numerous theories. Some say they are succumbing to pesticides. But pesticides have been around for many decades without having dramatic effects on the bee population. It could be that pesticides have cooperated with the general degradation of the environment to produce a critical mass of stress factors that have finally overwhelmed the bees. The Australian scientist I heard suspects something else: cell phones. All over the world there has been a steady rise in the use of mobile telephones, and in most parts of the most heavily populated parts of the world, transmission towers are popping up every few hundred meters. As a result, all of us are being exposed to large amounts of electromagnetic radiation and frequencies that are no doubt having some effect on our health, although we may not know how exactly the waves are affecting us until the damgae has been done.

Meanwhile studies have been done that suggest that the frequency of waves used to transmit all those terribly important text messages and telephone conversations being conducted via mobile telephones has a serious effect on the biological navigation systems of most kinds of bee. Because of impaired navigation abilities, bees are unable to find their way back to their colonies. They are not reproducing as frequently as they used to do, and they are not able to care for their young. One account of this effect is on the website of Institute of Science in Society.

There is so much to worry about these days. Will Sarah Palin attend her daughter's wedding with Levi? Who can worry about bees while such major issues as that are weighing on our minds? Still, one can't help hoping that the word will gradually get out that our addiction to cell phones is helping our addiction to oil to make our current way of life untenable.

May I request that if you do decide to help spread the word about the possibly deleterious effect of cell phones on bees, you use some medium other than an SMS?

Monday, July 12, 2010

A sign of the times

A few days ago I saw a bus on the streets of Albuquerque bearing a large sign that read “Abortion is an Obama Nation.” Being a fan of country music, I enjoy clever plays on words and puns, so I had to admire the play on the word abomination. On the other hand, I am also a fan of accuracy, and I prefer information to distortion. Whatever one may think of the morality of abortion, there is no truth whatsoever to the claim, implied on the sign on the bus, that President Obama is promoting or facilitating abortion. It is not true that the health care bill passed this past winter is going to enable tax-payer dollars to pay for abortions. That claim is another of the many examples of shameless emotional manipulation that has taken the place of rational political debate in the United States.

But what if the new health care bill did provide funds for women seeking legal abortions? Would that be any reason to oppose the bill? It is in the nature of health insurance policies of all kinds that people who require medical attention and who have insurance policies can have legal medical procedures at least partially paid for through their insurance plans. This means that careful drivers help pay for the medical procedures needed by those who are injured in accidents caused by careless drivers. It means that non-smokers pay for the illness acquired by smokers, that thin people for for diseases acquired by obese people, that joggers and people who routinely work out at the gym pay for the illnesses of couch potatoes, that vegetarians pay for medicare care of meat eaters, and that pacifists help pay for people who are wounded as a result of participating in wars they have volunteered to fight. That is how insurance works. It ceases to work as soon as some policy-holders refuse to allow their premiums to pay for medical care needed by other people with different lifestyles, political views or social values.

Public health insurance, such as Medicare, does not and cannot allow non-smoking tee-totaling contributors to opt out of the plan because their contributions are paying for smokers and those who have used alcohol. Public health insurance schemes work just like all other health insurance schemes in this respect. Those who opt to be covered for medical care they may need someday cannot elect which other people can receive medical care, nor can they determine the circumstances under which other subscribers will be covered.

The fact that it has come to be seen as a legitimate issue that some insurance policies may cover medical procedures that some policy-holders do not approve of is one of the many signs of the decline of skill in thinking clearly. This decline has reached epidemic proportions. Clear thinking is hardly encouraged by anyone in the commercial world, because people who think clearly do not buy products they do not need or really want, and when people stop buying what they do not need, many an unnecessary business enterprise suffers.

Clear thinking is also not encouraged by politicians of any major party, since clear-thinking people are unlikely to support politicians who are mostly funded by commercial enterprises that encourage policies that serve the interests only of the stockholders who invest in businesses and neglect the interests of consumers, workers, the environment and people in general. Sloppy thinking is essential to maintaining the status quo in American commercial and political life. And so slogans replace discussion; implications replace evidence; and deception replaces information.

Just about everything in contemporary American life has become an abomination. The United States is a country in steep decline. There are some of us who are still waiting for the Obama nation that the Democratic party promised us during the election season of 2008, but to hope for a liberal or progressive government is to hope against all evidence. Sadly, the Obama nation has proven to be more of the same old abomination we came to expect under the leadership of Presidents Reagan, Bush pére, Clinton and Bush fils.

At least we still have country music filled with clever wordplay to amuse us as we slip steadily into the abominations of mediocrity.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Sanitized at last!

Readers of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will recall the reference to telephone sanitizers—people whose task it was to keep pay telephones clean so that no one would pick up a dreadful disease from the earpiece. The advent of the mobile telephone has pretty much eliminated pay telephones from the landscape, so professional telephone sanitizers have gone the way of steam locomotive engineers.

I have recently discovered where all those unemployed telephone sanitizers have gone. Yesterday, as I was getting my shopping cart at the local grocery store, I noticed a small red basket filled with discarded plastic wipes. Above the basket was a dispenser of little plastic rags, apparently saturated with some chemical that presumably proves lethal to germs, or at least renders them temporarily stupid. On the dispenser was a neat sign explaining to shoppers that they could use the wipes to clean the parts of a shopping cart that some part of the human body might touch. I stood by and watched several shoppers carefully wiping down the push bars of their grocery carts so that they could enjoy the experience of shopping without having to worry about acquiring some fatal or debilitating disease from germs carelessly left there by previous customers.

I felt a slight adrenalin rush as I embarked on the risk-filled adventure of shopping without a sanitized grocery buggy. The thrill of the adventure was muted somewhat by feelings of dismay as I thought of all the plastic being added to landfill sites by chemical-saturated plastic sheets that were used once and then thrown away. Surely, I thought, shoppers who are worried about picking up contagious diseases from shopping carts might be advised to purchase their own hazmat suits before entering the grocery store. It is probably only a matter of a year or two before we are treated to the sight of shoppers wearing ventilators and astronaut suits as they pick their way through the potential dangers of the produce section.

A few months ago, on one of the science programs I listen to on the radio, I happened to hear a scientist talking about how much more compromised the natural immune systems of Americans are compared to those of Europeans, Asians and Africans. The prime suspect in the decline of the ability of Americans to fight off infections and viruses, said the scientist, is our collective obsession with sanitation. Everywhere one goes these days, dozens of precautions are taken to shield customers from stray germs. People preparing sandwiches wear latex gloves, plastic caps covering all their head hair, and even plastic cups to contain their beards, if they be beard-sporting sorts of people. Salad bars and buffets are covered with Plexiglas shields placed at a height making the fetching of a leaf of spinach require performing awkward contortions for anyone more than 125cm (49 inches) tall. Americans proudly pay for their food with germ-laden paper money bearing the slogan “In God We Trust”, but they are careful not to let any stray bacteria land on their dinner plates, just in case God can't be trusted to protect them from contagion. Ironically, it could well be precisely their unwillingness to let their natural immune systems have a bit of a workout that is making their immune systems too flabby to fight off the common cold.

Every now and then someone from the Tea Party manages to say something that almost makes sense. A couple of days ago I heard a Tea Party-backed candidate say that what is wrong with America is that Americans have become so obsessed with innocuous trivialities that they overlook the truly dangerous factors of life. I could not agree more, although I suspect the Tea Party and I might have some disagreements about details as to what is an innocuous triviality and what is a true danger. (The candidate from the Mad Hatter's Tea Party did go on to say that one of the gravest dangers facing America is illegal aliens from Mexico, whereas I would be more inclined to say that the most serious threat to America is the people who are already living here legally and who established their hold on the land by a skillfully executed combination of genocide, treachery, larceny and environmental devastation, all fueled by unrestrained greed and selfishness. But aside from that silly little detail, there is room for broad agreement between me and the Tea Party analyst of the American condition.)

There is more to say on this topic, but I find myself growing faint as I consider all the germs that are no doubt entering my immunity-deficient bloodstream through my fingertips as I touch the keyboard of a computer that may have been walked on, or perhaps sneezed upon, by one of the cats while I was out shopping. The cat might well have caught and eaten a mouse carrying hantavirus and then slobbered on my space key. I can't write any more before I check myself into the emergency care unit at the nearest hospital.

Pray for me, eh?