Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP Photo/AP
The neurologist and author Oliver Sachs died yesterday aged 82. I read his most famous book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For A Hat, a few years ago, but beyond that know little about him. According to the obit in today’s Guardian, he was criticised for writing “fairy-tales” in that his case histories lack the meticulous detail that contemporary science expects of practitioners. He was also accused of breaching patient confidentiality, although as far as I am aware, he took care to protect patients’ identities and certainly never used their real names in his writing.
What I do know about him is the sheer humanity he demonstrated in everything I’ve read by him, not least the very moving essay he wrote in the New York Times on learning of his terminal illness in February of this year:
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”
I urge you to read the whole thing, here.
The leading American Trotskyist, James P Cannon spoke at a memorial meeting in New York for Leon Trotsky on 22 August 1945. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had just taken place (August 6 and 9), and Cannon used the occasion to express his outrage at the atrocity:
What a commentary on the real nature of capitalism in its decadent phase is this, that the scientific conquest of the marvellous secret of atomic energy, which might rationally be used to lighten the burdens of all mankind, is employed first for the wholesale destruction of half a million people.
Hiroshima, the first target, had a population of 340,000 people. Nagasaki, the second target, had a population of 253,000 people. A total in the two cities of approximately 600,000 people, in cities of flimsy construction where, as reporters explain, the houses were built roof against roof. How many were killed? How many Japanese people were destroyed to celebrate the discovery of the secret of atomic energy? From all the reports we have received so far, they were nearly all killed or injured. Nearly all.
In the [New York] Times today there is a report from the Tokyo radio about Nagasaki which states that “the centre of the once thriving city has been turned into a vast devastation, with nothing left except rubble as far as the eye could see”. Photographs showing the bomb damage appeared on the front page of the Japanese newspaper Mainichi. The report says: “One of these pictures revealed a tragic scene 10 miles away from the centre of the atomic air attack”, where farm houses were either crushed down or the roofs torn asunder.
The broadcast quoted a photographer of the Yamaha Photographic Institute, who had rushed to the city immediately after the bomb hit, as having said: “Nagasaki is now a dead city, all the areas being literally razed to the ground. Only a few buildings are left, standing conspicuously from the ashes.” The photographer said that “the toll of the population was great and even the few survivors have not escaped some kind of injury.”
In two calculated blows, with two atomic bombs, American imperialism killed or injured half a million human beings. The young and the old, the child in the cradle and the aged and infirm, the newly married, the well and the sick, men, women, and children — they all had to die in two blows because of a quarrel between the imperialists of Wall Street and a similar gang in Japan.
This is how American imperialism is bringing civilisation to the Orient. What an unspeakable atrocity! What a shame has come to America, the America that once placed in New York harbour a Statue of Liberty enlightening the world. Now the world recoils in horror from her name.
One preacher quoted in the press, reminding himself of something he had once read in the Bible about the meek and gentle Jesus, said it would be useless to send missionaries to the Far East anymore. That raises a very interesting question which I am sure they will discuss among themselves. One can imagine an interesting discussion taking place in the inner circles of the House of Rockefeller and the House of Morgan, who are at one and the same time-quite by accident of course-pillars of finance and pillars of the church and supporters of missionary enterprises of various kinds.
“What shall we do with the heathens in the Orient? Shall we send missionaries to lead them to the Christian heaven or shall we send atomic bombs to blow them to hell?” There is a subject for debate, a debate on a macabre theme. But in any case, you can be sure that where American imperialism is involved, hell will get by far the greater number of the customers.
What a harvest of death capitalism has brought to the world! If the skulls of all of the victims could be brought together and piled into one pyramid, what a high mountain that would make. What a monument to the achievements of capitalism that would be, and how fitting a symbol of what capitalist imperialism really is. I believe it would lack only one thing to make it perfect. That would be a big electric sign on the pyramid of skulls, proclaiming the ironical promise of the Four Freedoms. The dead at least are free from want and free from fear…
Long ago the revolutionary Marxists said that the alternative facing humanity was either socialism or a new barbarism, that capitalism threatens to go down in ruins and drag civilisation with it. But in the light of what has been developed in this war and is projected for the future, I think we can say now that the alternative can be made even more precise: the alternative facing mankind is socialism or annihilation! It is a problem of whether capitalism is allowed to remain or whether the human race is to continue to survive on this planet.
We believe that the people of the world will waken to this frightful alternative and act in time to save themselves…
Ive only just discovered QualiaSoup, an artist and thinker whose YouTube videos present the case for rational, critical thinking and the scientific method. It’s excellent stuff, that anyone with religious hang-ups, belief in the “supernatural,” tolerance of backward ideas in the interests of “open-mindedness” and indeed quite a few people who consider themselves “Marxists,” would do well to watch and ponder. Here’s an example:
P.S: It transpires that QualiaSoup has a brother, TheraminTrees (!)
The environmentalist George Monbiot tweeted today:
Yes, I support #nuclear power, in general. But the economics of the #Hinkley deal are simply bonkers. Appalling value for money.
Monbiot is right on both points: nuclear power must play a part in any serious UK energy plan, taking account of environmental concerns and climate change. But he’s also correct that this deal is “bonkers” – and not just because of the price guarantee/subsidy being gifted to EDF and the two Chinese companies that will deliver the new reactors: it’s simply bizarre that the privatisation-obsessed Tories are, in effect, handing the UK’s nuclear energy industry over to state-owned concerns in France and China.
The Observer‘s Will Hutton adds a further note of concern:
“This is a breathtaking step in an industry where the sensitivities over operating safety, technical efficiency and waste disposal are so acute. Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are remembered around the world. Chinese state-owned companies are a byword, not least in China, for inefficiency, loss-making and politicisation of decision-making. The party has wrestled for a generation with the reality that these companies, designed by Mao to embody the communist dream of uniting economic and social obligations, abolishing worker exploitation and spearheading modernisation, are sclerotic economic duds.”
Nevertheless, the traditional “left” stance against nuclear power (in reality, based upon Stalinist cold war anti-nuclear weapons concerns) is clearly outmoded, and must be dispensed with.
We have, in large part, George Monbiot to thank for forcing at least some in the environmental movement, and on the rational left, to rethink their old prejudices against nuclear power.
Les Hearn, writing for the AWL’s paper Solidarity in 2011, takes a similar position:
Why I support nuclear power as one of a range of alternatives to fossil fuels
Back in the 70s, like many on the left, I was alarmed by what seemed to be the cover-up of the risks of nuclear power in the 50s and 60s. The indiscriminate power of nuclear weapons to kill in large numbers also marked many on the left with a fear of nuclear energy. But, as Maynard Keynes put it, “when the facts change, I change my mind”.
We only have one planet and it is overwhelmingly likely that “we” (or greedy capitalists, if you like) are altering its climate for the worse by returning carbon dioxide to the atmosphere a million times faster than it was originally locked away in fossil fuels. And, despite attempts to reduce carbon emissions, these are actually rising … by over 5% last year, from 29.0 to 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt or billion tonnes).
And, of the 13.7 Gt released by electricity generation, 11.2 Gt is “fixed” for the foreseeable future, since it will come from existing or planned fossil fuel power stations that will be operating in 2020.
The closure or cancellation of nuclear power stations makes this much worse, since these are the main proven alternative source of electricity. Countries which have reacted to recent scares, rather than evidence, include Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, Italy and Switzerland.
Truthfully, the potential risks of radiation are massively exaggerated by anti-nuclear groups in comparison with the actual risks of the fossil fuel industry to workers and the public. In particular, the environmental risks of radiation are minimal — wildlife is flourishing in the exclusion zone round Chernobyl and, as James Lovelock has pointed out, in the atom bomb test sites in the Pacific.
Furthermore, the difficulties of replacing nuclear power, let alone the whole fossil fuel industry, with renewables are minimised (see my article in Solidarity 203, 11 May).
It is said (by Theo Simon, Letters, Solidarity 204, 18 May —http://bit.ly/k8WOD9) that “nuclear power demands high security and central control”, as if these were necessarily bad.
Central control would anyway be needed to construct tens of thousands of wind turbines, on- and offshore, and the new supergrid of thousands of kilometres which would be needed to get the electricity to the cities. Already, proposals to introduce new systems of pylons have provoked mass protests in Wales, Scotland, Somerset and the West Midlands. And putting cables underground would be ten times more expensive.
Apparently, I fail “to question the projected ‘energy gap’ which is being used to justify nuclear power expansion”. The argument goes that, if the most wide-ranging programme of insulation and energy conservation is undertaken world-wide (the like of which has never been seen), then the electricity generated by nuclear power would not be needed. As the Spartans once said in a different context, if!
Once again, let’s look at the reality of nuclear power. The worst accident of all time, Chernobyl, has killed 43 people. This was due to the criminal negligence of the USSR police state. 28 workers were fatally irradiated while bringing the reactor under control. 15 young people died of thyroid cancer, entirely avoidable had the bureaucrats issued potassium iodide tablets (as was done promptly in Japan recently). Other estimates of potential deaths range from 9,000 to 900,000 but even the lowest of these seems to be way too high. So far, no other deaths have been proved to be due to the Chernobyl disaster.
As Wade Allison (author of Radiation and Reason) states, the ability of living tissue to repair radiation damage has been wildly underestimated. In radiation treatment of cancers, healthy tissues receive up to five times the fatal dose of radiation but spread over several weeks, during which time they efficiently repair the damage.
Many accidents have occurred in nuclear power plants. In those resulting in radiation leaks, there have been … no deaths or even injuries among the public. A few workers have died, usually because they were close to the incident. Otherwise, nuclear workers are healthier than the general population. A 2% increased risk of cancers linked to radiation is dwarfed by a 24% decreased risk of death from other cancers, according to a Canadian study. It also found that nuclear workers lived longer than average. And this under capitalism!
I am accused of listing the objections to nuclear power but not attempting to answer many of them. In particular, in the areas of waste disposal, plant safety and cost, I fail to “see the reality of nuclear power within the context of a global capitalist economy”. Trading content-free accusations, I might accuse others of failing to see the reality of renewable energy within the context etc. etc.
Of course, I did deal with plant safety and waste disposal. A recent Physics World (May 2011) shows that more modern designs would have survived both the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. These include better back-up generators and containment for molten fuel in case of a meltdown, and passive (i.e. not depending on a power supply) emergency cooling operated by gas pressure or gravity. In fact, modifications to the Fukushima model to reduce radiation leaks in case of an accident were proposed by scientists 30 years ago but rejected as too expensive. Meanwhile, other similar power plants survived the earthquake and tsunami undamaged.
On radioactive waste, I said that deep storage in stable strata was perfectly plausible. Reprocessing would reduce the amount and feed back fuel to nuclear plants. The relevance of the “global capitalist economy” to this is not clear, except that they won’t pay for it. In any case, the danger of waste has been greatly overstated. Five metres of concrete would absorb all the radiation from anything. Wade Allison “would be perfectly happy” to have high-level waste buried 100 metres below his house, while James Lovelock has “offered to take the full output of a nuclear power station in my back yard.”
Alternatives to fossil fuels consist of two proven technologies, nuclear and hydroelectric power (HEP), a host of promising but unproven ones, and the mirage (at present) of a vast reduction in energy demand.
All have environmental and/or health implications. HEP requires vast dams flooding arable land and wildlife habitats, disrupting river ecosystems, destroying estuarine fisheries, reducing the fertility of flood plains, and endangering lives in case of collapse.
The Three Gorges dam in China necessitated flooding 1000 towns and villages, and “removing” 1.4 million people. Since completion in 2006, the reservoir has been plagued by pollution and algae. The dam is silting up, while the extra weight of water is causing geological problems. Downstream, the reduction in flow has led to a drought affecting 300,000 people, with drinking water reservoirs containing only “dead water”. Shipping can no longer use large stretches of the river. It is worrying that Switzerland is phasing out the nuclear power that provides 40% of its electricity, replacing it with HEP.
It is also worrying that Germany, the sixth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is phasing out nuclear power, increasing carbon emissions by 3%. If it can afford to do without the electricity from its nuclear plants, it should keep them open while closing down an equivalent number of fossil fuel plants, cutting CO2 emissions proportionately.
In Japan, phasing out nuclear power will cause massive shortfalls in energy. The optimistic scenarios of Energy-Rich Japan (ERJ — http://www.energyrichjapan.info) all involve substantial reductions in demand (so far untested), while some involve reductions in population — by up to 20%! Since an increase will be needed in order to care for the ageing population, this seems particularly unrealistic.
In particular, ERJ claims that transport energy can be reduced by 70% with hydrogen-powered vehicles. They don’t mention the following problems. Hydrogen is inefficiently produced from fossil fuels; solar-powered electrolysis of water is even more expensive. Highly flammable hydrogen must be stored in pressurised tanks, no doubt to be released in traffic accidents. A new infra-structure for hydrogen supply would have to be built, “a matter for policy decisions and market forces” (ERJ) (!?). Fuel cells to “burn” the hydrogen use costly platinum catalysts which can be poisoned by impurities in the hydrogen or air, which is also needed; their reliability over long periods is unknown; they would easily freeze in cold weather; they would be a magnet for thieves. Incidentally, ERJ assumes that much of the hydrogen would be imported (from where?).
Other aspects of ERJ’s schemes are equally vague. Much geothermal energy would be needed, though this technology is notoriously unreliable. Curiously, nowhere in 250-plus pages is there a mention of earthquakes or tsunamis!
It is difficult to avoid James Lovelock’s conclusion that “only nuclear power can now [my emphasis] halt global warming” — but this is not to accept nuclear power as it is. The possibility of fail-safe thorium-powered reactors is ignored not only by the (capitalist) industry which will not or cannot afford the research costs but by the Left and environmentalists. Supported by eminent scientists such as Carlo Rubbia of CERN, thorium reactors do not have a chain reaction to go out of control. They rely on a stream of neutrons from a particle accelerator which could be instantly switched off. Using plentiful thorium, they can also “burn” other radioactive materials, including surplus bombs … and high level radioactive waste. Radioactive material decays into stable isotopes, usually lead. Plutonium takes about 100,000 years to reduce to 1/20 of its original amount. Thorium reactors accelerate this process greatly (Accelerated Transmutation of Waste), reducing the volume of waste and the time for which it would have to be kept safe.
A final point: Theo accuses me of ignoring the “proliferation argument”, which he seems to equate with the simple possession of nuclear power. There are many difficult steps to building nuclear weapons and it is clear that these have not proliferated anything like as fast as civil nuclear power. More of a problem is terrorism and here too it is not clear that nuclear power plants are uniquely vulnerable and dangerous targets. More importantly, many conflicts are, and will be increasingly, over resources, particularly as the climate changes. Nuclear bombs won’t be much use in these!
Yet more deaths in the UK fossil fuel industry (four workers killed in a Welsh oil refinery explosion in March; five coal miners killed in Wales and Yorkshire in September) should help put the supposed dangers of nuclear power in perspective. Multiply these figures by at least 1,000 worldwide. According to Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (www.ecolo.org), environmental opposition to nuclear energy is the “greatest misunderstanding and mistake of the century”. We should be demanding that nuclear power be expanded and improved, rather than phased out.
But let’s demand the safest forms of nuclear power, as well as support for renewable energy research.
Excellent piece by Monbiot: ‘The farce of Hinkley c’
Environmental secretary Owen Paterson made a speech today in favour of GM crops.
He said that his speech was “quite long” and that it would contain “quite a lot of detail”. He’s right. You can read it here and, unusually for a speech posted on a government website, it makes very good use of links. If you read the speech online, you will find plenty of links to source material justifying the claims that Paterson was making. Paterson made some of his arguments on the Today programme this morning (9.45) , but in that interview did not include the attack on the European Union’s regulatory regime that is at the heart of the speech.
Paterson’s decision to come out in favour of GM follows years of pusillanimous evasion by British politicians of all stripes, terrified of antagonising the anti-science lobby and being portrayed as friends of “Frankenfoods.” In large part this is due to a significant shift in public opinion: in a poll commissioned by the Independent last year, 64 per cent of respondents were in favour of experiments on GM crops, with 27 against and 9 per cent undecided. This represents a major shift from the 1990’s when public opinion in Britain was overwhelmingly opposed.
Much of the credit for this must go to Mark Lynas, an anti-GM protester from the 1990’s who studied the science and changed his mind, braving the wrath of erstwhile friends and colleagues, some of whom can turn very nasty. Lynas told the Guardian:
“I think there are several reasons why GM is making a comeback. First, the blanket opposition to GM per se as a technology is obviously untenable in any scientific sense – there is no reason why it should present any new dangers in food, and, indeed, may well be safer than conventional breeding in crops…
“With the passage of more than a decade since the widespread commercialisation of GM crops in North America, Brazil and elsewhere, hundreds of millions of people have eaten GM-originated food without a single substantiated case of any harm done whatsoever.”
Alongside Lynas, credit is due to Professor John Pickett and his team of scientists at the publicly funded Rothamsted Research Institute. Here four of the Rothamsted scientists make their case, pleading with protesters who had threatened to destroy their GM trial in May of last year:
Now, at last, it looks as though those voices of reason are winning the day.
I’m honestly not sure how significant this is, or how worried we should be. GCHQ has been using the information gathered on British citizens. It’s all over today’s Guardian , but the PRISM Power Point slides, as shown to the US National Security Agency, were first revealed to the public by The Washington Post (below):
Through a top-secret program authorized by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data. Documents describing the previously undisclosed program, obtained by The Washington Post, show the breadth of U.S. electronic surveillance capabilities in the wake of a widely publicized controversy over warrantless wiretapping of U.S. domestic telephone communications in 2005. These slides, annotated by The Washington Post, represent a selection from the overall document, and certain portions are redacted. Read related article.
Introducing the program
A slide briefing analysts at the National Security Agency about the program touts its effectiveness and features the logos of the companies involved.
The program is called PRISM, after the prisms used to split light, which is used to carry information on fiber-optic cables.
This note indicates that the program is the number one source of raw intelligence used for NSA analytic reports.
The seal of Special Source Operations, the NSA term for alliances with trusted U.S. companies.
Monitoring a target’s communication
This diagram shows how the bulk of the world’s electronic communications move through companies based in the United States.
Providers and data
The PRISM program collects a wide range of data from the nine companies, although the details vary by provider.
This slide shows when each company joined the program, with Microsoft being the first, on Sept. 11, 2007, and Apple the most recent, in October 2012.
Guest post by Pink Prosecco
Stephen Hawking, explaining his decision to boycott the Shimon Peres Presidential Conference in Israel, describes what he had planned to say:
“Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”
That is a strong statement, but it’s not an eccentric or hateful view – and you certainly don’t have to be an enemy of Israel to share it. Yet although I can understand why some (particularly Palestinians) have urged Hawking to boycott this event, I very much regret his final decision. There are many countries which would not have allowed him to strike his planned dissenting note – and where requests for solidarity from those considering themselves oppressed could not even have been articulated. Here is Omar Barghouti’s response:
But Palestinians welcomed Hawking’s decision. “Palestinians deeply appreciate Stephen Hawking’s support for an academic boycott of Israel,” said Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “We think this will rekindle the kind of interest among international academics in academic boycotts that was present in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.”
I believe Barghouti is still registered as a PhD student at Tel Aviv University. That doesn’t mean that he can’t speak out against the injustices of occupation, checkpoints, detention or any other topic, or indeed call for boycott. Clearly he can. And that fact in itself might make one wonder, not whether Israel should be protected from robust criticism over its policies, but whether it is really the one country in the world which deserves to be the focus of such a very concerted boycott campaign.
It is now universally accepted by competent health professionals that the MMR triple vaccination jab is the safest protection presently possible against measles, mumps and rubella. The present outbreak of measles in South Wales is entirely attributable to the discredited (and probably fraudulent) “research” of Andrew Wakefield in 1998, falsely linking the MMR jab with autism. Wakefield’s dodgy “research” was widely promoted by the Daily Mail and other media (including the South Wales Evening Post) from the moment it first appeared until well into the 2000’s, even after Wakefield’s “research” was officially discredited and the man himself struck off. As a direct result teenagers who did not receive the two MMR jabs that are required, as infants, are now the main group suffering from infection.
But still opportunist quacks are (literally) cashing in on the fears of gullible parents: The Children’s Immunisation Centre (see below) ran a clinic last weekend in Swansea supplying the less effective single measles vaccination privately for £110 for each jab plus a £50 registration fee. MMR is available on the NHS free of charge.
The Children’s Immunisation Centre website gives telephone numbers for private clinics offering single measles jabs in England and in Swansea and also links to old newspaper articles suggesting an autism link to the MMR vaccine.
It also claimed that the single vaccines are “the only safe option” to immunise against measles – but that demonstrably false claim has now been removed from their website.
Why has no government minister spoken out against these quacks? In particular, why has health minister Jeremy Hunt had nothing to say? It surely can’t be because the government rather approves of both “parental choice” and private medicine for profit – or that Hunt himself is on record as being sympathetic towards quackery?
H/t: BBC Wales
The profiteers’ fraudulent publicity, below:
The Children’s Immunisation Centre Ltd operates The Immunisation and Medical Centres. Our centres operate Nationally London, Manchester, Kent, Dartford, Birmingham, Southampton, (Leeds-Harrogate, Nottingham-Sheffield Coming Soon), has been specialising for ten years on all types of vaccinations but particularly in single vaccinations against Measles, Mumps, Rubella: MMR single vaccinations; baby jabs and other childhood and new vaccinations to protect adults and children in the UK, and for all your travel vaccinations such as Yellow Fever ,Typhoid rabies and Cholera to name but a few.
We are particularly proud of our 100 per cent safety record and have over 18,000 registered patients and we are one of the UKs largest and friendliest injectables company.
Our group was established in 2002, and for the last 10 years has brought PEACE OF MIND to thousands of patients for affordable private single baby jabs of single Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR single jab vaccinations) -currently no mumps vaccine available in the UK.
All our thousands of patients are healthy, with no autism, no hospitalizations or fits (anaphylaxis shock) no febrile convulsions. We have a 100% Safety Record and have given over 70,000 vaccinations.(over 18,000 patients)
Our Measles, Mumps, Rubella single jab (MMR single jabs) immunisation clinic was the first private health clinic to obtain its Care Quality Commission. We have been independently audited and checked by Care Quality Commission Assessors;
FOR YOUR PEACE OF MIND.
Our clinics are in Birmingham, London Harley Street, Manchester, Kent-Dartford, Southampton, (Leeds-Harrogate, Nottingham-Sheffield Coming Soon). All our clinics are open on Saturdays so that parents can conveniently bring their children for their single MMR jabs (single immunisations). It is essential children and adults keep up with all their immunisations and check booster requirements.
Apart from MMR single jabs, we also protect against the following diseases, especially for travelling children. No NHS referral necessary.