30 April 2015

world wide wednesdays :: historically significant riots, an inadequate compendium

in case you didn't know, today marks the twenty-third anniversary of the beginning of the l.a. riots that erupted when the police officers who beat african american motorist rodney king were acquitted of criminal charges. i haven't heard it mentioned on the news today [oh boy] because most news outlets, or at least the american ones, are falling over themselves trying to show the latest footage of fuck all happening in baltimore, while they wait for more rioting to happen. they do cut periodically to footage of a seniors' home that was under construction burning the other night, which, according to the conservative washington post, actually had nothing to do with the protests or the riots, which were happening in another part of the city. the burning community centre/ construction site has had far more coverage than the peaceful demonstrations that have been happening in the city, because... ok, i can't even come up with a good joke for that. it doesn't get covered because it doesn't give that dramatic, knife-edge tension, that sense that these perfectly-coiffed and powdered television hosts are dong something important and brave, rather than just reporting the potentially important things that are happening around them.

i say "potentially", because we can't tell what effect events in baltimore this week will have. at the moment, it looks like chaos, because it is chaos. no one knows what's going to happen as a result, so how history remembers the homicide of freddy gray, or that of michael brown in ferguson missouri, or any of the protests and violence that happened in their wake is something that will only be known in the future. i'm not here to comment on that [although i've been commenting on these events a lot outside the blog]. i'm here because i think that one of the things that gets lost in these ultra-close up analyses is the fact that riots and civic violence can make significant changes in the course of history. that doesn't make them less frightening, but it should give us a warning that it's important to pause and think about what's come before the spectacle.

so to that end, i thought i would present you with a my own little curated list of historically significant riots, in no particular order...

paris, 1968 :: a loosely affiliated network of students, blue collar workers and artists brought france to the brink of revolution [president charles de gaulle briefly fled the country] after a series of confrontations with both state bureaucracies and police. at its peak, nearly a quarter of the population was involved in the protests and occupations. although brief, the paris uprising succeeded in gaining concessions from the government and instilling a healthy fear of the people in the minds of subsequent administrations. certainly a model for modern-day protests because of its social [rather than political] success and probably the closest a western state has ever come to an anarchist republic.

poll tax riot, london, 1990 :: in power for more than a decade, it seemed like nothing but death could dislodge margaret thatcher from downing street, but things went abruptly wrong for the iron lady over a tax reform issue that triggered a massive protest that degenerated into a riot in the middle of london. initial claims that the riot had been caused by anarchists and militants among the crowd were embarrassingly disproved when the defence team for those arrested was able to show that the police had provoked rather than contained the violence. thatcher was subsequently hounded from office by her own party and her successor, john major, scrapped the poll tax. one of the more sinister legacies of the poll tax riot, however, may be the complicity of the media in building the narrative of events. aside from proving the culpability of police, the raw video footage of events showed that national networks had edited footage so that it appeared that the crowd of demonstrators attacked police, which had provoked the police aggression, when the sequence of events had actually happened the other way.

haymarket riot, chicago 1886 :: almost a hundred and thirty years on, this remains one of the most contentious stories in the history of labour protests. workers at the mccormick harvesting machine plant had been on strike for months, principally with the aim of getting an eight hour work day. in a confrontation between strikers and replacement workers, police murdered two of the strikers, which prompted a protest gathering at chicago's haymarket in support of the union and its members. at that protest, a bomb was thrown from the crowd and killed a police officer, the ensuing melee resulted in the deaths of six more policemen and at least four protestors. it also tripped off an ugly wave of xenophobia against german and bohemian [modern-day czech] people and facilitated a massive clampdown on organized labour. although eight suspects were arrested and convicted of conspiracy, the police acknowledged that none of them was the actual bomber and there were allegations that, in fact, the bomb had been thrown by an agitator seeking to cause problems for the unions. it remains a polarizing subject, either an example of organized labour's extremist strain or of the lengths to which those in power would go to undermine the working class.

boston tea party, 1773 :: possibly the most famous riot in history, "the destruction of the tea in boston" as it called is like a traumatic incident on the american psyche. if you've ever wondered why so many americans bristle at the very mention of taxes, consider that their country became independent because of a showdown with one of the most powerful countries in the world over a tax on tea. the issue wasn't really the tea, of course, but whether or not the british had the right to impose a tax on their colonies without granting them representation in parliament. the americans argued that this ran contrary to the british constitution. the british argued that the constitution didn't apply to the colonies. next thing you know, huge shipments of tea are being dumped in boston harbour and there's a revolutionary war happening.

nika riots, constantinople, 532 :: yes, you read that right. this riot didn't so much change history, but it is part of history, despite being almost forgotten. the nika riots were a precursor to both political and sports riots, incorporating elements of both. at the time, support for a specific chariot racing team implied not just that you came from the same area as their captain, or that you preferred their colours, but political affiliations. during the races, it was customary for fans of each team to shout slogans for their team and for their political beliefs. so you'd end up with a mash-up of "you're going home in a fucking ambulance [once it's been invented]" and "hey hey, ho ho, justinian's taxes have got to go". in fact, emperor justinian was nearly forced to abdicate when a particularly heated series of chariot races got out of hand. in the end, the emperor was able to prevail [reputedly by reminding a large group of the protestors that he cheered for the same racing team as they did, whereas the guy who wanted to replace him cheered for their rivals], but by the time the riots ended, there were roughly thirty thousand people dead and much of constantinople lay in ruins, making the nika riots the most deadly and most damaging in history.

watts riots, los angeles, 1965 :: in many ways the blueprint for what we have been seeing in the last couple of years [and that we saw in los angeles again in 1992], the watts riots were the immediate result of a confrontation between an african american family and the police, but were more akin to a rupture in a pressure cooker. accusations of police brutality in black and latino neighbourhoods were dismissed as exaggeration or outright lies by a police force desperate to show that it had reformed after damaging scandals in the 1950s. when locals saw what appeared to be an assault on unarmed blacks [including one woman] by white police officers, their anger erupted and a week-long wave of violence, directed largely towards the police and white-owned businesses, followed. in the wake of the riots a commission was organized to report on the causes of the civil unrest. the report identified long-term poverty, high unemployment and poor services as key issues and recommended substantial improvements in public housing, better health care facilities, increased ties between the police force and the community, emergency literacy and job training programs, improvements to public schools in the area and more. almost none of the recommendations were acted upon.

i could include many, many more examples of how our realities have been shaped by riots. i've purposely avoided confrontations that were entirely one-sided, such as st. petersburg's "bloody sunday" of 1905, which was a major factor in the fall of the russian czar nicholas ii. the incomplete list above is just intended to be a reminder that history is often shaped by violence against both people and property. that violence doesn't erupt in a vacuum and it's important to understand the larger forces behind current events. that doesn't mean that we have to condone violence, but i do think that we need to understand it. we need to remember that protestors aren't a uniform group and that there may be many different agendas at work; we need to question what we hear about events, because information is often distorted to fit certain narratives; we need to be vigilant and not let fears about public violence cause a backlash against certain groups; and we need to remember that ignoring the causes of riots and protests only means that we'll be seeing them again and again, until fundamental changes are made.

27 April 2015

mental health mondays :: happy places

i'm a city girl. i grew up in a small city, albeit one with a cultural life larger than one would expect from its population size. i live in a city of approximately three million, with a million of them packed onto an island at the urban centre. i used to live in a city of over five million, give or take, whose urban sprawl was so significant that even one of its suburbs is among the largest cities in the country. i like cities. i like the variety of activity, the collision of cultures, the energy, the feeling of being in a political, artistic and educational centre point. but i'm also a girl who likes the country. i don't get there often enough, but i have always loved being able to rest in the quiet by the ocean [i'm decidedly ocean-oriented when it comes to my quiet spaces]. i don't know that i could ever live in a really remote location- it seems like a pleasant idea until i start to consider the practicalities of long trips to get food in, large-scale snow clearance and property maintenance, and isolation from health services, which will only become a greater problem as i age. i can see myself eventually retiring to a small town, something with a university and a long history.

one thing i cannot stomach is suburbs. to me, they combine the worst of all possible worlds, along with a peculiar hell of sameness and destructive boredom. that's an easy thing to say in this day and age, of course. everyone who doesn't live in one hates the american-style suburb. the suburb is mocked as the home of affluent, uptight people preoccupied with an homogenous ideal of perfection for themselves, their homes, their children and their chemically-enhanced lawns. they're devoid of the cultural exchange of cities, the wildness of the country and the warm camaraderie of the small town. [note :: i'm perfectly aware that these are broad stereotypes and that there are plenty of examples of dull cities, depressed farming country and mean-spirited towns.]

those are my prejudices, which are consistent with the prejudices of a lot of people, particularly city folk. but it got me to wondering, do the places where we live have a great effect on our mental health, as great as other social factors? am i onto something by insisting that urban living has benefits beyond access to interesting grocery shops and art galleries? or do those who have decamped for [literally] greener pastures have the upper hand in mental health? someone has to have studied that, right?

right. in fact, a lot of people have studied it, but there's a lot of variance in terms of what they've found, mostly because there's a lot of variance in what they've taken into account. for starters, there has been a tendency for research to look at urban dwellers and compare them to those in small towns or in rural areas. that means that the suburbs get lumped in with one group or the other, rather than treated as a completely separate group. this is a great disservice, because the suburban experience is very different than any of those things. people in cities and small towns have lives that are focused in the area where they live. people in suburbs are often split between locations, with home and work existing in completely different spaces and involving a great deal of transit that's simply absent from the lives of others.

when compared to those in small towns, urban folk don't do very well. we're much more prone to virtually every sort of mental disorder, from mild depression to full-blown schizophrenia. contrary to what you might think, a german study revealed that the brains of city dwellers are less adept at dealing with stress than their small-town counterparts. in an environment where we're constantly exposed to stress- noise, pollution, strangers- we get worse at dealing with it, not better. one possible explanation for that [discussed in the linked article] is that our stress monitors- the sort of thing that makes animals raise their hackles or quietly growl- are constantly being triggered by so many things that we're in a constant state of aggravation whether we realise it or not. so it's that much easier to be nudged over the edge by anything. [interestingly, a study in great britain that looked at similar issues found that the mental health differences between the urban and rural areas of the country were there, but that the difference wasn't only a little over the threshold of statistical significance. so there's a lot more at work than just the question of big city vs. small town.]

for a true look at the suburbs' effect is on mental health, however, we're better off confining ourselves to studies done in north america. that's because suburbs work differently here than they do in europe. with our preponderance of land, the tendency has been for people to try express their financial status through acquiring it. since world war ii, there has been a well-documented migration outward from north american cities into spaces where land was available and affordable for the middle class family. in europe, suburbs have become the places where people are "pushed out"- often poor or working class, filled with grim high rises and reserved for those who can't afford life at the heart of the city. the comparatively tiny continent is riddled with towns that have been in place for centuries. there simply isn't the room to build large bedroom communities.

even in america, the effects of suburban life on mental health haven't been particularly well-documented. a lot of people seem inclined to rely on the sort of logic i have- that urban life is vibrant and exciting, whereas suburban life is stifling and monotonous- or to transpose the findings of the european-style studies and make the assumption that urban life is stressful and frustrating, whereas suburban life corresponds more with that of those in small towns. in fact, the answer is a little more complicated.

for those who think that the suburbs are a perfect compromise between urban bustle and rural quiet, good news: this study shows that life on the fringes of the metropolis has no negative effect on your mental health. the bad news is that it has ill effects on your physical health in a lot of different ways. people in the suburbs are significantly more prone to arthritis, back pain, lung disease, urinary tract problems, migraine and digestive issues. given that ill health often causes secondary depression, it may only be a matter of time before rates catch up with those of their urban cousins, but for the moment, living in suburbia does seem to have its advantages. [note :: if you survey the charts associated with this study, you'll notice that the median income for participants is between $40,000 and $50,000 per year. although the authors say they have adjusted for income differences, even the lower end of that range is substantially higher than the united states average. since there is generally a strong correlation between poverty and rates of mental illness, it's worth considering that part of that greater mental health may be accounted for by reduced anxiety over money.]

if found that this study had perhaps the most interesting information on the suburban versus urban debate, because it doesn't just judge the relative happiness of the two, or the incidence of mental illness, but the specific concerns of suburbanites as in comparison to both urban and rural dwellers. the picture it paints is a great deal more subtle.

according to its findings, there are two main factors that are associated with deteriorating mental health: population density and affluence. in terms of population density, the traditional view holds: the more we are squished up against strangers, the less happy we are. this makes perfect sense when you consider that animals are used to living either within a defined group where they know all the members, or on their own. the presence of strange animals is a cause of stress due to impulses buried deep down in our psyche. we feel crowded and threatened being surrounded by all of these others that we don't know, and the result is that we feel worse over all. [of course, we should add to that the fact that densely populated places are generally higher in crime and in our proximity to it, which further erodes our sense of security.]

it's with the factor of affluence that weird things start to happen. although, as i've mentioned, people who are wealthier tend to exhibit more robust mental health, those who live in wealthier suburbs are generally worse off than either those who live in less affluent suburbs or urban areas. and this is where the traditional distinction between the angry, depressed city folk and the relaxed, happy small town ones hits a snag. suburbanites are trapped in a paradoxical world where the more moneyed and satisfying the surroundings are, the less happy with their lives and themselves are the people in them.

there is definitely a tiered system of suburbs, where the most expensive tend to be located farther out, with larger houses and more land. early suburbs tend now to be a little shabbier. the houses are closer, smaller and promote interaction with others in the neighbourhood. newer suburbs facilitate privacy and isolation. as a result, people in these wealthier suburbs feel more detached from both their neighbours and their community. there is less of a sense of belonging to anything and of being alone which, as it turns out, is just as emotionally damaging as being asses to ankles with a bunch of strangers.

also, people in wealthier suburbs report being less happy with themselves and feeling as if they have less control over their lives. it's not possible to say with any certainty from the numbers alone, but i personally think that might be because "wealth" is a very different matter than "money". suburban wealth is often financed through debt, which can shackle a person to certain responsibilities and limit their options. as i said, that's a theory- i don't have any science to back me up on that. there could just as easily be anxieties related to the amount of work that's required to maintain a larger property, or the rigid schedules that larger distances between things imposes, or simply because of feelings of competitiveness between neighbours.

one factor that definitely bears consideration is the limited opportunities for physical exercise, particularly outdoors. we've talked before on mental health mondays about the strong correlation between physical inactivity and mental distress and there is no doubt that newer suburbs are not built for physical activity. most don't even have sidewalks, which means that even a trip to the store to pick up milk usually requires a car. the increased time it takes to do things like commute, buy groceries, get to school, etc. tends to promote a sedentary lifestyle, which is known to make depression and anxiety worse.

so, after all that, are we better off living in the city or the suburbs? the easy answer is "neither". both are rife with problems that needle at the parts of our brain we can least control. we'd be better off staying in smaller places with a strong civic core, opportunities to get out and move, where we can get to know a lot of the people we see and where we feel we can be meaningfully involved. that can mean smaller cities or towns, but it can also mean living in a city that has strongly defined neighbourhoods that allow you to work and live mostly within a defined region. it could also mean considering some older suburbs, which are less daunting that those at the vanguard of the urban sprawl. more importantly than all of that, i think it shows that there are relationships between where we live and our psychological well-being, and that those things should factor into our [sub]urban planning.

26 April 2015

making faces :: the power of low expectations?

i know that my first thought when i heard that hourglass cosmetics were replacing their much-loved eye shadow duos with new palettes was "i don't know if i'm happy about this". i really love the duos that i have [prism, exhibition and suede] and while i desperately wanted to see an expansion of available colours, i didn't want things to just change. why mess with something so good?this feeling was amplified when i looked at the beautiful, but alarmingly impractical design of the palettes. so lovely to look at! i so don't by eye shadow to look at it in its packaging!

then, earlier this year, the reviews started to come out. and they were not especially flattering. many makeup aficionados were annoyed that the formula kicked up a lot of powder- which is an obvious problem when there's nothing dividing one shade from another. some said the shades were very powdery and were difficult to build up. some said that they faded much faster than similarly priced shadows. some complained that, of the seven palettes on offer, almost all were fairly neutral, and therefore not terribly distinct from one another. priced at $67cad a pop, these seemed like a rather expensive risk. and so i waited.

finally, i rationalised that hourglass has earned my trust. their phenomenal ambient lighting powders are an almost daily part of my makeup routine. the blushes they designed to go with them are among my favourites. i like their lip glosses and their velvet creme lipsticks, especially since they produce certain nude shades that actually work on my skin tone. i love their feather-soft brushes and plan to collect every single one. and so, i thought, there couldn't be any harm in trying just one to see if it really was disappointing. after all, i could just keep it and look at it if things really didn't work out.

i opted for the warm plum combination "exposure", which seemed to offer a nice selection of shades and finishes. i figured that, if any of them was likely to win me over, it would probably be this one.

the palette contains five shades that appear to range from a creamy highlight to a blackened purple. i say "appear to" because the lightest shade is a little deeper on me than i expected. the darkest shade is very deep, but it's also the easiest to blend, so you have to actually want the full impact to get it. before i get on to evaluating the individual shades, i thought i'd share my thoughts on the formula overall, since it's been so troublesome for some people.

is the formula very powdery?

well, yes, it does kick up a lot of excess powder, but honestly, i always found that hourglass eye shadows had this issue. the difference with these is that there's nothing dividing one shade from the other, so cross-contamination is a greater concern. powdery also means that it's pretty easy to pick up a fair amount of product without exerting much effort, so a little common sense goes a long way here: i found that patting a brush in the powder was more than sufficient to collect what i needed. there's no need to go at the pan like you're scratching a fresh mosquito bite. likewise, patting the colour on the eye and using a light touch to blend is your best bet to getting great results. consider it a lesson in refinement and delicacy: think jane austen, not the duchess of malfi. [<--- after="" all="" degree="" i="" look="" m="" p="" see="" that="" undergraduate="" using="">
does it fade quickly?

not on me. i always use a base [generally mac paint pot in "painterly"] and i didn't experience any fading beyond what i'd consider normal. even the darkest shades held on pretty well and it's my experience that purples tend to fade faster than other colours.

is there a lot of fall out from the shimmery shades?

there's only one shade where i thought this might be a concern, but in the end, i had no problems. again, apply in a light, patting motion. if you blend vigourously, you may get some fallout, but one of the advantages of such a soft formula is that the colours don't require a lot of blending. tap the excess from your brush before applying. you'll do fine.

25 April 2015

i have no idea what i'm doing

in the same way that i should be doing to keep my body in shape [but mostly am not], i try to keep my writing muscles in shape by just sitting down and making myself write for a few hours. i can work on one particular thing. i can work on a lot of little things. usually, it's a mix of the two. i've not been very good lately at working on things that i have planned out, things that already have a structure [in my head] and characters and a plot and dialogue. nah, that stuff i just keep putting off, because i have the rest of my life to work on that. i'd much rather distract myself with extremely similar work. [this is why you had a six year hiatus between books, you realise that, right? -ed.]

i often wonder about the line between keeping myself in a creative headspace and just wasting time. i think that we all have a tendency to trick ourselves into thinking we're doing something productive when we're really just dedicating a lot of time to the parts of a job we like rather than tackling more onerous tasks. for instance, i did a quick count and determined that i have written nearly six thousand words on the blog this week. i'm not counting the part of "mental health mondays" that was re-posted- that's just the new stuff i've created in the last seven days. and that's not even taking into account the fact that both "mental health mondays" and "world wide wednesdays" were shorter than average. six thousand words. i'd like to say "hey, it's all writing", but that seems like a lot of effort towards something that can't ever be used in a fiction piece, which is what my, er, "real" writing is supposed to be all about. [nonetheless, i love working on this blog. this is where i go to just play with ideas from the real world and indulge in all the various interests i long to share with people, but usually can't find human beings willing to put up with me in person.]

of course, sometimes, when i'm doing my little writing "heats" at home, i get lucky and something just blossoms from the tower of babble. i've had luck recently raising entire short stories from the muck of my mind just because i started letting my fingers interpret for my brain. that's when i feel like i've accomplished the most. not all of what comes out is good, of course, but some of it is, and even more of it has the potential to be good with a little more loving attention from my more grounded brain.

24 April 2015

paranoid theory of the week :: is ebola really a biological weapon?

welcome to a few feature here on more like space, dedicated to the wonderful world of the paranoid, the sinister and the conspiratorial. although i'm pleased to wallow in my skepticism, i've always been fascinated by alternative theories of history, science and politics. i'm entertained by the sheer lunacy of many of them. i admire the holistic nature of others, where every detail is carefully folded into the master plan, like some kind of universal origami. still others impress me because they actually turn out to be true. so i figure i'll share my love in the name of entertainment and possible education, by breaking down different theories [i don't believe i'll ever run out of material] and evaluating the likelihood that there's anything to them. for the rating system, i'll be using a scale from 0-10, where 0 means a theory has been disproved/ is too batshit insane to consider and 10 means that it's been shown to be true. [i'm going to invoke the legal standard of "reasonable doubt" in those extremes, because i know that there will always be a small number of people who can't be convinced by anyone.]

the theory :: ebola is man-made

the ebola virus is actually a bio-weapon that either escaped or was introduced to humans in the third world. 

the story ::

at this point, what we're seeing is "the ebola conspiracy 2". the first wave came in the 1990s when an outbreak of ebola- technically a family of viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever- in zaire. the virulence of the disease, its staggering fatality rate and the lack of a cure immediately caught people's attention. chronicled in the nonfiction book the hot zone and fictionalized in the film outbreak, ebola seemed to hit everyone's fear triggers.

according to conspiracy proponents, the virus was actually created in a lab. the first wave of ebola conspiracies in the 1990s were split between those who claimed that the virus had been introduced into certain populations of africa [either to suppress local resistance to western domination or just to see what would happen] and those who claimed that american "research centres" [biological weapons development centres] were just sloppy and left the top off the wrong mason jar.

theories related to the more recent outbreak, that started in guinea in 2013 and has killed more than ten thousand to date, are more willing to concede that earlier ebola outbreaks may have been natural, but that the current outbreak is the result of a weaponized version of the virus, because it has been more deadly and more difficult to contain.

the originator ::

this is always hard to pin down, but the most influential of the early theorists is probably dr. leonard horowitz. horowitz alleges that two great scourges of africa- ebola and aids- were both developed in laboratories in the 1960s as potential biological weapons. those who have adopted a conspiratorial view of ebola have generally built on horowitz' work.

however, among the modern conspiracy theorists, none is more important than professor francis boyle. boyle is not some fringe character. he's an expert on biowarfare and international law. he co-authored the biological weapons anti-terrorism act of 1989 and sat on the government committee on bio-technology. he raised the spectre of sinister causes for the 2013 ebola outbreak, saying that he didn't believe the new virus was behaving like the one that he had studied, but rather like a genetically modified variant. he claimed research centres in the third world often concealed weapons development behind the altruistic cover of searching for vaccines to tropical diseases and pointed out that there was one such research centre located in kenema, sierra leone, more or less the centre of the current outbreak.

in addition, there have emerged a whole family of conspiracy strains that link the current ebola epidemic to president barack obama.

the believers ::

trust me, i'm an eye doctor
a surprisingly large number of public figures believe at least some of the current hype. presidential candidate senator rand paul was one of the most visible, insisting that ebola was much more contagious than people were being lead to believe, that the virus had become airborne and that the obama administration was covering this up so that the american people wouldn't realise they were doing a piss-poor job of protecting them. paul, along with a handful of other republicans [phil gingrey, todd rokita, thom tillis, mike huckabee and scott brown, to varying degrees] have alleged some connection between ebola, obama and the mexican border.

but lest you think that this sort of paranoia is exclusively a right wing preoccupation, feminist author naomi wolf has claimed that raising the fear level about ebola is what will eventually provide an excuse for the obama administration to impose martial law. and controversial nation of islam leader louis farrakhan has indicated that he believes ebola is a biological weapon created by the united states to be used against people of colour. 

with the insertion of president obama into the debate, public figures have been a lot more willing to embrace theories about ebola that deviate from the commonly accepted line. conspiracies about ebola were viewed with considerably greater skepticism during its first moment in the media sun twenty years ago.

the bad guys ::

the world health organisation, doctors without borders, pharmaceutical heavyweight sanofi-pasteur [along with their major shareholders the rothschild group and l'oreal], the centre for disease control, tekmira pharmaceuticals [the canadian company that has developed a promising treatment for ebola under contract to the united states department of defense], the governments of canada, the united states, the united kingdom and france.

the evidence ::

science tells us that ebola is a family of five viruses [only four of which are known to cause infection in humans] that were first seen in simultaneous outbreaks in sudan and the democratic republic of congo in 1976. it is thought that the virus appeared first in animals, specifically fruit bats, along with certain species of primates who come in contact with these bats. it spread to humans through the consumption of bushmeat- basically the eating of monkeys and other primates- in rural areas of africa. the only proven way to contract ebola [sorry, senator paul] is through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. the mortality rate is incredibly high, because the virus weakens the organs, massively dehydrates the body, reproduces quickly and has no known treatment. [as a matter of information, it's a myth that ebola is characterised by profuse internal and external bleeding. hemorrhaging can occur, but definitely not in all cases and certainly not as profusely as many westerners have been led to believe.]

because of its extraordinary mortality rate and epidemic nature, there is the impression that ebola kills far more people than it actually does. even in the areas most effected by the disease, you're more likely to die from malaria or diarrhea, to say nothing of strains of influenza, which are far more contagious.

thanks, obama.
as to whether or not it might have been caused, either originally or in its latest manifestation, by a biological weapons experiment gone wrong... well, it's not completely out to lunch. many countries have conducted research on using pathogens as weapons, including anthrax, staphylococcus, hantavirus and botulism. research on biological weapons was officially ended by the two sides in the cold war in 1972 with the biological weapons convention. [president richard nixon had ended research on offensive chemical weapons in 1969 and order the reserves of such weapons destroyed.] the convention did, however, allow the development of certain biologicals, provided they were defensive. that's such a difficult term.

of the diseases investigated as potential weapons by the united states, the one that stands out for our purposes is hantavirus, because it is a variety of hemorrhagic fever-causing virus, like ebola. that doesn't make it the same as ebola, but it at least means that the united states government has admitted that it was at some point researching the possibility of using hemorrhagic fever viruses as weapons. one american worker even died after contracting a south american strain of hemorrhagic fever, machupo virus, on the job. the biopreparat, basically the biological weapons research body in the soviet union, also investigated the weapons potential of margburg virus, allegedly as late as 1992 and head reseracher nikolai ustinov died after accidentally coming in contact with an artificially powerful strain of marburg virus. so, yes, both sides of the cold war do seem to have looked into the possibilities of using ebola-like viruses as weapons and the case of ustinov indicates that at least the soviets may have succeeded in creating a more deadly strain of virus.

officially every country has conducted its biochemical weapons research on its own soil, so stories of covert sites in other countries are unsubstantiated. there is, of course, precedent for skepticism of these claims. so-called "black sites", secret prisons used to facilitate the extra-judicial rendition of suspected terrorists to american facilities, were a conspiracy theory until president george w. bush acknowledged their existence in 2006. let's call the allegation that the united states and/ or the soviet union had or have weapons research facilities in africa "neither proven nor categorically disproved".

as to francis boyle's assertion that the strain of ebola virus seen in the 2013 outbreak is more deadly and more dangerous than earlier strains of the disease... there appears to be some merit to that. the original 1976 outbreak of ebola killed a larger percentage of those infected, but there were a much smaller number of infections and the disease was unknown at the time, so medical staff would not have known how to contain it. the virus specifically responsible for the current outbreak was analyzed by research teams in the united states and sierra leone, who found that there were 341 differences between the new virus and the previously encountered versions of the zaire ebola virus, to which the new one is most closely related. however, researchers have not been able to say definitively whether or not those changes are responsible for the increased mortality rate of the new virus.

the second part of boyle's comments, that the virus showed signs of having been genetically modified, is not possible to verify, viruses morph on their own, all living things do. however, the case of nikolai ustinov shows that at least one facility had succeeded in creating a deadlier strain. there's no reason to think that the changes in the virus' structure is anything more than natural adaptation [341 differences sounds like a lot, but isn't really], but the idea that a higher octane ebola was engineered in a lab isn't beyond the realm of possibility either.

there exists no evidence that weaponized hemorrhagic fever was ever released anywhere except in a couple of lab accidents. there is evidence, lots of basically undisputed evidence, that governments have gotten all stupid when it's come to the handling of biological weapons. the united states dumped arseloads of agent orange in southeast asia without bothering to consider the effects it might have on their own soldiers, much less the people who lived there. later administrations have copped to having used human guinea pigs in ethically questionable research in mkultra and tuskegee. during the second world war, the united kingdom conducted experiments on the scottish island of gruinard that left it so badly contaminated that it was quarantined for fifty years. the soviet union accidentally released smallpox and anthrax to the general population of two separate towns. that's far from an exhaustive list, but i think it's enough to establish that, if someone had developed weaponized ebola, there's no reason to assume that they would have been careful about what they did with it.

of course, there's also the question of why world powers would be interested in researching ebola as a weapon at all. barring laboratory slip-ups, it's not a particularly dangerous epidemic outside regions with poor health care facilities. once identified, countries with modern hospitals and health care networks will isolate patients, which basically stops the progress of the disease in its tracks. the virus isn't particularly robust, so you can't travel easily with it. and finally, it requires exposure to bodily fluids to transmit, which makes it difficult for one infected person to do a lot of damage, even if they start going all zombie apocalypse and chewing on strangers' arms.

one "smoking gun" for conspiracy boosters is that the response to the most recent epidemic of ebola on the part of  the united nations and particularly the world health organization was sluggish. having seen in the mid-nineties that the improper handling of ebola victims by people who didn't know any better made the outbreak worse, it seemed to take health officials an inordinate amount of time to take much notice of what was happening. it's one of those peculiarly ambivalent occurrences that populate many conspiracy theories: it could be evidence of western indifference to problems in africa, or it could be deliberate.

the likelihood :: 3/10

the real problem with the man-made ebola conspiracy theory is that there isn't a lot of compelling evidence in favour of it. the most interesting arguments for a conspiracy are no more than circumstantial. no credible person has come forward to claim that they've witnessed or participated in any covert action related to the spread of ebola. much of the "connected" conspiracy theories- that president obama plans to sneak ebola in over the mexican border, that it will be used as an excuse to impose martial law, that the virus can be contracted other than through exchange of fluids- have no evidence to back them up whatsoever. [i'm basing my evaluation on the central theory only: that ebola is man-made.]

as conspiracies go, however, the idea that a more dangerous form of ebola was released, by accident or by some ill-planned test, as part of military research, isn't the craziest thing you'll ever hear, because there are confirmed cases of similar incidents. at the very least, there is a grain of truth, which is that hemorrhagic fever viruses were studied as potential weapons and that there were at least two deaths as the result of this research.

[the image at the top of this post is the ebola virus, as rendered by the geek geniuses at giant microbes. if you know anyone who's kinda clever and half as interested in plush toys as i am, their products are a guaranteed home run.]

23 April 2015

making faces :: a special one from guerlain

you know you want it
there is no word more likely to inspire ecstatic fits among makeup lovers than "taupe". we are like a nation of pavlovian canines, salivating at the very idea of a shade that defies easy explanation. but it's that difficulty that makes taupe so universally desirable: there's so much variety with in it and so many of them are adaptable to a wide range of skin tones. a couple of brands are coming out with new and reformulated single shadows this year and you can bet that each of them will have their own version of taupe. so i figured i'd start with guerlain, who have just launched their new and improved écrin 1 couleur shadows, and just follow the taupe brick road as far as it leads me. [yves st. laurent have already launched their own new singles, although they've been overshadowed- yuk yuk- by their version of the liquid eye tints. chanel will be revamping their single shadows later in the year.]

the new guerlain shades come in shimmery and matte finishes. the one that i have, "taupe secret" [yes, the names are all puns like that, which just makes me want to buy them that much more] is shimmery, so much so that i was worried about it appearing frosty on my eyes, but it absolutely does not. i've observed myself applying this close up in magnifying mirrors to see if i can figure out how the shade goes from being so incredibly shimmery in the pan and swatched to a subdued glow on the eyelids. it's not necessary that i understand it to enjoy the colour, but it fascinates me nonetheless.

world wide wdenesdays :: cleaning up our room

i've been pleasantly surprised since i started world wide wednesdays that it's become one of the most popular features on the blog. i'm surprised chiefly because most of the posts are long and involved and deal with pretty complex and heady issues [or at least try to deal with them] and it makes me happy to think that there are enough people who are willing to slog through a long piece to get some more information about the place where we live.

of course, i'm not surprised that people are interested in the topics, because earth is a fascinating place. our crazy, troubled, unique history is filled with stories that even the most creative writers would struggle to imagine. i really believe that most of us want to understand why situations are the way that they are and that our minds really aren't satisfied by the limited vision we are given of the world around us because we know, instinctively, that there is more going on than we're being told.

unfortunately, part of figuring out what's going on in in the world today forces us to take into account how we've damaged our home. and we've damaged it a lot. every area of the planet is now showing signs of that damage, and yet we're still forced to waste time debating whether or not climate change even exists. it's a sad state of affairs that's made worse by the public presentation of the issue, which most often frames the debate as having two equal sides. i defer to the brilliant john oliver on this subject:

today is [has been] the forty-fifth annual earth day, a time when we take a moment to think about our planet and its future and how we will shape that future, or simply to take the google quiz to find out what animal we are. i am a mantis shrimp. [thanks to marie for calling my attention to the oatmeal piece!] earth day has become a kind of sombre occasion, one that confronts us with the results of our collective laziness, greed, stubbornness and procrastination. it's depressing, but we've made the mess and now we have to clean it up. my interest today is in closing earth day with a little reminder of why we want to do the work to clean it up.

for starters, i found this graphic [original source here] of some things about earth that are pretty damn amazing already. [please don't quit your job to extract gold from seawater. i've done the math, it doesn't work.]

you'll probably want to zoom in
and here are some photos taken from the earth porn web site to remind us all of just how amazing this place can be and how beautiful it is when we have cleaned up. [thanks to dom, who originally suggested i follow those guys on social media.]

this is the only place in the universe that has cats and owls and elephants and sharks and pythons and capybaras and ladybugs and penguins and, yes, mighty mantis shrimp. but more importantly, it's the only place that has us. it's our home and as much as we like to daydream about what life might be like on other planets, we know that there really is no place like home and that it's where we belong. so we should actively seek out ways in which we can lower our own impact on the environment, we should give power to those who commit to acting in the interests of the planet [we're coming for you, stephen harper] and we should do these things not just because they're "good for us", but because the awesome diversity and beauty of the world enriches our lives and makes us happier people. [or if that isn't motivation enough, behave responsibly or i'll come and strike you with my murderous appendages.]

so happy earth day to all, from more like space, and hopefully many more of them.

20 April 2015

mental health mondays [rewind ++] :: personality disorders, more questions than answers

i got started on a mhm post for this week and, as sometimes happens, realised that i'd bit off a little more than i could chew in a day and a half. hopefully, i'll have that ready for you next week, but in the meantime, i thought i'd return to a subject that's received surprisingly little attention here. [and whose fault is that? -ed.] personality disorders are poorly understood even in terms of mental illness, because they seem to be linked more to learned behaviour than to brain chemistry. that's a grotesque over-simplification, because mood disorders are often treated with the same medications as conditions like depression and anxiety, and type i disorders usually require some type of behavioural therapy in conjunction with medication. plus, of course, that there's nothing saying you can't have both types of disorder going on at the same time. [brains are very evil and nasty things and it kind of sucks that you can't get by without one, although it some people do seem to manage.]

there are a lot of issues surrounding personality disorders, including how they're diagnosed [often quite differently between men and women], the perceived arbitrariness with which they're defined and accepted, the perceived stigmatization of certain character traits and their potential [ab]use in explaining socially unacceptable behaviour. the post below doesn't deal with any of that. it's just a basic introduction to the world of personality disorders, how they're [currently] defined and what makes them different from other types of disorders.

as a brief aside, one of the most controversial subjects associated with personality disorders is that they are often linked to prevailing morals of the time rather than hard science. [although, when it comes to the brain, hard science is a tricky concept in itself.] labeling people as mentally ill because they are different carries some pretty horrifying baggage. nonetheless, one of the things that treating personality disorders does [or is supposed to do] is to liberate the sufferer from the baseless anxieties that can impair their ability to function and feel happy or at ease. so to that end:

is it time to look at extreme examples of racism, sexism or homophobia as anxiety-based personality disorders? 

there's a fair amount to think about there, and i'm capable of playing devil's advocate on either side. i'm putting the question out there in case anyone else has thought about it.

oh, and for those of you who hadn't figured out the answer to last week's brain teaser [or looked it up on line], cheryl's birthday is july 16th. according to the readers of mental health mondays, however [you can see the comments on facebook], the proper answer is "cheryl is a cunt". [those aren't mutually exclusive. -ed.]


original here

much of our conception of mental disorders is wrapped up in the "biggies", things like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that tend to result in dramatic deviations from "normal" behaviour [even though they sometimes don't] and reasoning. but really, that's just the top layer of the crazy tiramisu. there are many further classifications of thought and mood disorders that don't get spoken about as much, but which may affect far larger numbers of people. they also tend to be more controversial, because they are less evident. someone who refuses to eat and bathe or speaks to people who aren't there or who cuts themselves because they believe that they have bugs living under their skin is obviously in need of help. someone who is prone to wild exaggeration or who thinks only of themselves often seems more in need of a boot to the head. ultimately, the fear is that behaviour which is merely odd or eccentric can be labeled as disordered thought, which obviously raises a lot of questions about the limits of individuality. i'm not going to get into the arguments for and against, that's for another day [and should probably involve a lot more voices besides mine]. this is just a quick introduction.

generally speaking, personality disorders are a group of symptoms established over the long term in an adult personality that affects or compromises an individual's thought patterns and interactions with and beliefs about the outside world. so what the hell does that mean?


19 April 2015

armchair centreback :: with friends like these...

normally at this time of year, when it comes to soccer, i'm settling into a nice groove of trying to figure out winners: keeping my fingers crossed for the ones i actually like and quietly poking needles into the voodoo dolls of those i hate. while i am certainly doing that, i've been distracted by a seemingly endless string of stories about footballers being naughty in their off time. well, really it's been just one player, with a cameo appearance from another, but it's also resurrected similar stories from the dead. [and a real time update...]

first, it was liverpool starlet raheem sterling smoking a shisha pipe. then it was raheem sterling inhaling nitrous oxide out of a balloon. then it was raheem sterling smoking a shisha pipe again, this time with teammate jordan ibe. this has created a lot of public backlash against the player, who has already been receiving the concentrated stink eye from liverpool fans after holding off signing a new deal with the club. and these images do unfortunately coincide with a rather shocking turn for the worse in liverpool's overall performance, so there has been a tendency to turn young raheem into a debauched scapegoat. [what on earth is a debauched scapegoat? -ed.][see above. -kate]

a number of publications used the story about sterling to remind everyone that arsenal midfielder jack wilshere was caught smoking a shisha pipe earlier this year, which was especially shocking since he'd earlier gotten in trouble when he appeared to share a cigarette with a friend and for an earlier incident where he'd had a cigarette in a bar. [in the time it took me to place the links for the wilshere bits, another story came to my attention about west bromwich player saido berahino inhaling nitrous oxide this week. clearly, the fabric of football society is unraveling.]

reading about this, there were a lot of questions that went through my mind: where do i sign up to get a lung transplant from one of these guys, because i haven't smoked in ten years and i still get winded walking up the stairs to my apartment? are those people who sell balloons at amusement parks really nitrous oxide dealers? why am i supposed to give a shit that these young men smoke and get legally high in their spare time?

with regard to the shit-giving question, i guess the argument is that sport celebrities are supposed to serve as role models for children. since i don't have flesh-children, i don't really know how that works, but i'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a role model who is supposed to possess the sort of dedication to one thing that makes him forgo every silly pleasure and indulgence in the name of success. that sounds like a recipe for a nation of thirty-year old serial killers. but like i said, i don't have kids.

the other argument for the public giving of shits about how men in their earlier twenties sometimes have a cig while out with friends, or inhale laughing gas, or do anything of the sort, is that they're accepting a lot of money to maintain their peak physical condition, and that this should be their first priority. ok fine, but by that measure, i should also be offended if these prime physical specimens drive cars, or walk outside when there's ice on the ground, or play with their kids. smoking a cigarette is lousy for your health, no doubt. i don't imagine nitrous oxide does you any favours either, but it's not like invading poland. [and don't start with me about how the fans are really paying these stars' astronomical salaries through ticket and merchandise sales so they deserve better. believe me, there are far worse things than cigarette smoking being done with your hard-earned dollars.]

the press assures me that raheem sterling has "escaped punishment" for his cigarette-and-balloon sins, however his team manager brendan rodgers says he thinks that both sterling and jordan ibe should make better choices about who they have as friends. i'm in complete agreement, although i don't think rodgers would approve. [note :: and rodgers was way nicer than wilshere's manager arsène wenger has been.]

clearly, rodgers means that they should try to distance themselves from other young men in their late teens and early twenties who do things like have the occasional cigarette and toy around with legal means of getting high. apparently it's no longer good enough for athletes to be squeaky-clean, but now they're not even allowed to associate with the reprobates i like to call "normal". [i'm going to go back to my nation of serial killers fear: it seems like rodgers' point is that a professional athlete should not have anyone in his inner circle with whom he can just kick back and be average. nothing good can come of that, brendan. it's an experiment in creating psychosis.]

my point about choosing better friends is this: clearly, these young men have a lot of people around them who think it's hilarious to take videos of their famous friends doing totally normal young man stuff and posting those videos on the internet. raheem, jack*, saido, i want you to understand something: those people are not your friends. those people are assholes and the fact that they insist on using images and videos of you in private moments in ways that are almost guaranteed to get you in trouble gives me the impression that they're likely harbouring some petty jealousy about your success and talent. rather than performing some great mea culpa about having a cigarette, i suggest you use the ensuing media shitstorm period to contact those "friends" and ask them why they thought it was such a great idea to post this stuff where anybody and everybody could see it. i don't have a lot of friends, but i'm confident that those i do have would never put anything on the internet that would get me public or professional trouble. and believe me, i've given them the ammo. [*in the case of wilshere, a lot of his "problem" photos weren't taken by friends but by paparazzi or onlookers. still assholes, but you have less control over them.]

with seasons winding up and competitions in europe going down to the wire, there's certainly lots to follow in the soccer world. however, i will refuse to follow the media histrionics and puritanical rage that accompanies leaked photos and videos of young men behaving like totally average young men. i will continue to file such reports into the "whatever" folder and quietly hope that these guys manage to connect with people who aren't such shitty friends. failing that, if your friends abolutely must post your embarrassing personal moments to the internet...

then i hope that you're at least able to turn the situation into something that just shows that you are still a great player who is awesomely above it all...

and if you'd like to see a few stories that are actually interesting and relevant about the above-mentioned players, perhaps you'd like to check out

... how raheem sterling's story illustrates that the support of family and community, combined with the relatively low barriers to entry for soccer mean the sport really can change the life path for a youth "at risk"

... how jack wilshere had a profound effect on the life of one sick boy [you should probably have a box of tissues on hand for this one]

... how saido berahino is a perfect example of the redemptive potential of the united kingdom's immigration system [so suck it, ukip]

and as for the rest of us, i think we should all pause imagine what life would be like if we had our worst moments posted on the internet. 

16 April 2015

world wide wednesdays :: what is it about greenland?

i am a person of strange preoccupations. this blog wouldn't exist if it weren't for that fact. some of them are very broad, like "politics", which people accept. others, like the fact that, aside from my obvious cat lady-ness, i have a fascination with owls, are seen as quirks. and then there are those that cause people to furrow their brows and ask: why? and most of the time, i have to shrug and say that it's not like i chose to be interested in those things, it just sort of happened. like gil grissome on csi explaining how he chose death as a profession, i like to think that my interests chose me.

of all my weird interests, though. none raises as many eyebrows as greenland. perhaps it's because people rarely, if ever, think about greenland's existence. or maybe it's because, from a certain point of view, there's just nothing there to be interested in. or they could be puzzled at how a person who lives in a country with vast expanses of arctic terrain should be so completely taken with a country made up entirely of arctic terrain. [i get that one. even i can't figure out why i should be so taken with a place that is more or less an offshoot of the canadian north.] in other words: i can't explain my behaviour. [ok, one tiny little bit of pseudo-explanation: i'd been sort of interested in greenland when i was very young- a consequence of the same globe that fired my plan to be the queen of new guinea- but hadn't thought about it for a very long time. then, several years ago, i had an incredibly vivid dream about going to greenland that came out of nowhere. i hadn't discussed it, hadn't read anything about it, hadn't been in touch with anyone who'd been there. i just had this dream and then all of a sudden, i started remembering how interesting i'd found the place lo those many years ago. i've no idea why my brain decided to return to greenland, but my brain is an irascible bastard and i try not to talk to it very much.]

greenland, almost exactly as it looked in my dream
at this point, though, i can't imagine why people would argue why greenland isn't interesting. there's all sorts of stuff going on there that we should know about. for starters, while it may have been mapped, it's remains one of the few great wilderness areas of the world. despite being the globe's largest non-continental island [ok, even i admit that "non-continental" is kind of cheating], it is the least densely populated country on earth. there are fewer than 60,000 people on the entire island and most of them are concentrated heavily in the southwest. there is a giant national park of over a million square kilometres that has precisely zero year-round residents. it has jagged coastlines and mountains and icebergs you can run around on and beautiful, grassy, flowery fields in the summer and the entire inner portion is a gigantic slab of ice and the most revered deity is a sea goddess whose father threw her off a boat and chopped off her fingers when she tried to climb back in and her fingers turned into seals. how is any of that not amazing?

greenland is one of the last areas of the planet to be settled by humans [insofar as it has been]. people didn't arrive in greenland until approximately 2500bce, with only a smattering of settlements present for hundreds of years. the dorset culture of northern canada seemed to push out previous settlers in the west around 800bce, after which greenland remained more or less stable for some time. eric the red arrived around the year 1000 and established a few viking settlements, but there was so damn much room and so much wildlife to hunt that none of the groups was particularly bothered by the others. around the year 1300, the thule group, the ancestors of today's inuit, arrived and drove out the dorset. the norse didn't particularly care and the thule decided that if the norse didn't care and were happy to stick to their little area on the south coast, then they couldn't be bothered to drive them out.

sedna, patron goddess, bad manicure recipeient
that arrangement suited everyone just find until they realised that they had all arrived during a period of atypical warmth. after a few decades, greenland started to drift back to its old, cold ways, making farming difficult and making game scarce. this brought on conflicts between the thule inuit and the norse, conflicts which the norse lost badly. as a result, the europeans decided that they'd had enough and those who were left alive hauled anchor and went back to whence they came. so in theory, greenland was inuit owned and operated from that point on. but europe saw it quite differently, meaning that several different crowns laid claim to the island, including portugal, because it was so close by, and, after several different claims and shifts in continental power, where everyone said they owned greenland but no one actually wanted to live there, the island was "officially" claimed by the danish crown, who exercise control over it to this day.

that's right, greenland is still in the process of becoming a fully independent country. successive votes for greater autonomy have not yet disentangled it from its colonial clutches. despite a preponderance of natural resources, the island remains heavily dependent on a financial stipend from denmark and cutting that off too quickly would throw the country's fragile economy into chaos. however, successive referendums have called for greater and greater sovereignty, and so progress, while sometimes slow, is being made. greenland continues to elect two members to the danish house of parliament to speak for their interests, but has its own parliament as well, which handles the bulk of national administration. there is some concern in europe over the consequences of allowing greenland to slip away entirely. the united states has maintained the thule air base on the island and, considered from a purely geographical standpoint, greenland is part of north america. however, since it has been politically part of europe in the modern age, that wealth of natural resources i mentioned has remained under european control. it's also given europe [outside russia] a greater say in issues related to the arctic than they would otherwise have. at the moment, everyone is scrambling to establish their own rights to greenland's fishing grounds, shipping lanes, minerals and possible fossil fuels, before things take a turn for the worse- something we'll talk about shortly. the bottom line is that no one wants to wait and see what decisions greenland will make for itself. [side note :: an early test of greenland's continental allegiance may happen within the next few years. for some time, the country has had its own soccer league and a national team, but they have been unable to become a member of international associations because their climate and the resulting layer of permafrost could not maintain a natural grass pitch. not so easily deterred, greenland made a pitch out of field turf, which gained official sanction from fifa in 2010. assuming they are now in the fast lane to being admitted to fifa, greenland would then have to choose the league in which it would compete: concacaf in north america or uefa in europe.]

being as far north as it is, light and dark in greenland is a different experience than it is in most other places. during the winter months, it rarely gets brighter than a sort of twilight. during the summer months, it rarely gets darker. strangely, it is both warmer and colder than the canadian archipelago, of which it is basically an offshoot. the coastal regions tend to get a little warmer, however the inland ice sheet is the coldest place in the entire arctic. it is also said to be the best place to experience fata morgana, which is enough to recommend a visit on its own as far as i'm concerned. the fata morgana is a type of mirage, caused by the bending of light in response to temperature changes. but that description doesn't come close to doing it justice. fata morgana are incredibly vivid, lifelike visions that you can photograph. seriously- the objects don't exist and you can take pictures of them. go check wikipedia, they have the photos. it is a strange and contrasting land. [side note :: as peaceful as it is, greenland holds the unenviable title of being the suicide capital of the world. contrary to what you would think about sunlight deprivation making people depressed, suicides are most common during the summer months, leading some to believe that insomnia caused by the perpetual daylight drives people over the edge. wouldn't that make an interesting plot for a movie? moving on... there are a lot of social causes for suicide in greenland as well. long-term poverty and substance abuse are huge issues and the main driver behind the huge number of suicides. however, greenland is only the worst place for suicides because it is counted separately. if the canadian north were considered as a separate country, its suicide rate would be considerably worse.]

all those are things that i find interesting about greenland and why i hope one day to visit. but there is one really important reason we should all be looking to greenland: it's telling us a lot about where our planet is headed.

greenland is positioned at the "tipping point" of the gulf stream, where it makes a turn southward. here's an informative and hypnotic nasa video to show you the basics of how it works:

the problem is that greenland is melting. now, there is always some melting of the greenland ice sheet- the movement of the gulf stream actually depends on it- but in the last fifteen years, as global temperatures have continued to rise, there is a lot more of the greenland ice sheet dissolving into the ocean. how much more? well, there was a steady loss between the turn of the century and 1970, after which it became stable for the next three decades, until the turn of the next century. between 2001 and 2011, melting increased by over 500%. then 2012 saw the largest annual melt in recorded history.

city life, greenland style
under normal circumstances, the fresh water from the greenland ice sheet mixes with the heavier salt water from the gulf stream and helps zip it along its merry way around the rest of the globe. unfortunately, when there's so much fresh water being added, the difference in density is too great and the two types of water can't mix, which means that everyone just sort of sits there wondering what the hell to do next. [now is the moment when i wish i'd paid closer attention in science classes, so i could come up with a better, smarter way of explaining that.] the fresh water essentially forms a semi-permeable barrier. the salt water can continue to flow, but its momentum is impaired and not as much of it gets past the blockage. i'm sure everyone has had this problem with at least one sink or tub in their home. unfortunately, this clog will not be moved by dumping a bottle of drano on the problem and poking at it with a wire coat hanger. [i know i'm not the only person who does that.]

indeed, there is credible evidence that the gulf stream has slowed by about 7% in recent years and as that has happened, the distribution of nutrients carried by the gulf stream has shifted. also, because of the clog in the global tub, there has been a tendency for the warmer water to back up in the south atlantic, which makes for even hotter temperatures and stronger storms in those areas. further up, along the coast of the united states, the back-up is felt in the most literal way- as a substantial increase in the sea level. although there is always significant fluctuation from one year to the next, the average change along the northeast coast of the u.s. is around 2.5mm per year higher. from 2009-10, there was a rise of 100mm. that represents the kind of change that should happen once in a millennium.

because the slowdown of the water current we all depend on to keep our climate steady, our soil hardy and our sea levels under control isn't worrying enough, our friends at science discovered something new about the greenland ice sheet last year that bodes even worse: it seems that they were a little bit off on their guess of what's under the greenland ice sheet. until last year's breakthrough research, it had always been assumed that the ice sheet was anchored to a very large slab of bedrock. and there were good reasons to think that, because most giant ice sheets are anchored to a very large slab of bedrock. but as it turns out, the bottom of the greenland ice sheet is less bedrock and more... muck. as much as that sounds problematic, it generally hasn't been. greenland has been around a very long time and it's always been sitting on this underground bog, but it's really heavy and there's a lot of water pressure keeping it in place and the muck is pretty thick. the problem now is that, as more and more water comes pouring out of greenland, the muck is becoming slippery and unable to absorb the excess moisture. that means that the entire ice sheet is considerably less stable than we'd assumed. ice sheets move and crack naturally, because the earth is more elastic than we'd like to think, but in this case, we're talking about a giant island that could apparently just sail off into the sunset while we're not looking.

ok, that's not going to happen. none of us will wake up and see greenland floating by our window. but with the ground underneath it shifting more than it should, the ice sheet will start moving and cracking more than it should. as a little experiment, take two ice cubes out of the fridge and put them on small plates. crack one of the ice cubes into two or three pieces and observe the plates to see which of the original cubes melts faster. the greenland ice sheet is an ice cube with enough water to raise the sea level over the entire world by about seven metres. it's already melting faster than it should, and if it starts to split, well, that's where the ice cubes are instructive.

our friends at science say that it's still unlikely that we could see a disastrous melt-off before the year 2100, which is not that comforting to me at all, since i didn't even know that melting greenland some time this century was even on the table. and they're saying it's unlikely with the assumption that there won't be any more spikes in the melting trend, not like the last decade and a half. this is the sort of thing that makes my dreamy vision of greenland turn nightmarish.

i don't expect that everyone will feel as excited by greenland as i do. i don't expect that most will want to travel there. its stoic beauty, magical light shows and remoteness stir something up in me, but that's a personal quirk and everyone's are different. my point [yes, there is one], is that we all need to be a little more interested in greenland. we need to know what it has to tell us and we need to figure out how to heal it. because it turns out that this strange country is holding our future, very precariously, in its fingerless hands.

p.s. :: here's a little greenland-inspired music for contemplation.

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