Monday, February 28, 2005

Live Aid

I had Thursday and Friday off, because of the cold I developed on top of everything else - it wiped me out for a little while. I spent most of the time watching DVDs, including most of the Live Aid boxset, which I was given for Christmas but hadn't yet had time to watch.

On July 13th 1985, I was just 8 years old and I don't remember anything about Live Aid. Neither of my parents were really into popular music of any sort, so the all-day concert may not have been on in our house. Whether it was or not, isn't important, now.

So, when I put the first disc in, it was completely new to me. What I saw, though, made me wish I had been ten years older and in the middle of the pitch at Wembley. What a fantastic day it must have been.

It's hard to imagine, now, how difficult it must have been to organise the whole thing. Not just hosting the concerts and getting all of the featured acts to appear, either. No, the real miracle was getting it broadcast around the world (the reckoning was that it aired on 97% of the TVs in the world, or thereabouts) in a time when mass communication was still a pipe dream. Can you imagine doing it now without using a mobile phone, email, the internet, or even a fax machine? That's how a lot of it had to be done twenty years ago. Phenomenal!

What about the concerts themselves? Well, the Wembley one fits my musical taste much better than the Philadelphia one did (only to be expected, I suppose) but they were both very good. It was interesting to see artists and groups, that today seem like they have been around forever, back when they were at or near the beginning of their careers. People like Madonna and U2.

There were a few things I noted about the whole affair:

1. It surprised me that no one really seemed to be dressed outrageously. I mean, the eighties will always be remembered for its rather unrefined fashions but there wasn't much of it on show. For the most part it seemed that jeans and a shirt would make do. This was probably a good thing, for me, as it didn't give the impression that it was all a bit dated, which would have taken some of the gloss off it.

2. Queen (well, Freddie Mercury, really) stole the whole show, with seven songs where no-one else did more than four. They were one of the main reasons why I wish I'd been there.

3. It reinforced the fact that my musical taste is a decade or two earlier than my age might actually suggest. Everything from the sixties rock and roll, to the seventies punk and rock and the eighties pop was just brilliant.

4. The quality of the acts that appeared was very high. You probably couldn't put together a similar concert today without having to include a smattering of 'Get Me A Mediocre Music Career' reality TV show winners and second-rate girl- or boy-bands. Oh, well - such is life.

July 13th 1985 has been called a Day That Changed The World but, sadly, this just hasn't turned out to be true. It certainly raised a lot of money that was used to feed starving people in Africa and provide much needed medical aid. The problems that caused the Ethiopian famine, however, still exist and millions of people throughout Africa continue to lead their lives under the threat of starvation and disease. Events like Live Aid can only ever treat the symptoms of the problems in Africa - it is the causes that need to be tackled.

No amount of charity money will ultimately solve anything. It has to be down to the leaders of the world and their governments to put solutions in place. Solutions like writing off third world debt, undertaking fair trade practices and tackling the corruption that is rife in so many African governments.

Maybe the twentieth anniversary of Live Aid would be a good time to put some of it into practice.

Monday, February 21, 2005

At last!

I went back to the doctors' surgery this morning. This appointment was different to all the other's I've had in my life. That's because I didn't request it.

I came home on Thursday last week to a message asking me to call the surgery. When I did, the receptionist (or whoever) told me the GP wanted to see me for a routine appointment. I thought it was rather odd since they wouldn't need to give me a routine check-up since I was only in there a week earlier. Logically, it could only have been about the latest test results but if that were the case then why call it routine? Looking back it was probably because they didn't want to worry me unnecessarily over the weekend.

Anyway, I went and it was about the test results. They have given an answer to the problems I have been having. However, it is an answer that throws up yet more questions.

They showed that my white blood cell count was low again (it was probably just a blip in the second test, which showed it on the rise again) and, more importantly, that the levels of T3 and T4 hormones in my blood are quite high. That clinched it - I have a hyperactive thyroid.

It explains most of the symptoms I've been having - racing heart; breathlessness; weakness in the muscles; weight-loss while eating normally; sleeping problems and other symptoms I'd rather not discuss. There are also symptoms that I hadn't noticed because they weren't that unusual - being excessively thirsty, for example, and having clammy hands. The reason that it has taken this long to find out the cause is that the symptom that caused me to go to the doctor in the first place was the tiredness and lethargy, which are symptoms of an under-active thyroid and therefore don't fit with that list above.

So, what's next? Well, the drugs that the doctor would normally prescribe can sometimes lower the white blood cell count and given that mine is already low she is unwilling to do that in my case. Therefore, I'm being referred to a specialist for further investigation. That means more tests, to pin down what is causing the condition, followed by treatment, which, at the extreme, could mean an operation.

At least the answers are beginning to come out. I have a name for it and a definite direction for the next steps. That's a very good thing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bees - A Reply

Seeing the odd letter that BW received last week, I got to thinking about a suitable reply...

Dear Mr Bradley,

Thank you for your kind letter requesting help with your project to start keeping bees. I can see from what you wrote that you are indeed a novice when it comes to the art of beekeeping. I tried using a technique similar to the one you are proposing when I first set up a beehive. Unfortunately, I was destined for failure because I was unaware of a very important fact. When bees are happy, they become very lazy.

My bees were living in the very best apian luxury and they refused to come out of the hive to pollinate the flowers in my garden and make honey, preferring instead to spend their time in the gym and mini-cinema that I had built for them. It took months to work out where I had gone wrong. After that, though I corrected all my mistakes very quickly.

In order to get the most out of your bees, you must keep them unhappy. An unhappy bee will take his frustrations out on hte flowers around the hive and will pollinate them in the process. He will then go home and make you lots of delicious honey.

So, how do you make, and keep, your bees sad? There are a variety of ways to this but here are a few important steps:

1. Find a colony of bees that are happy in their freedom to come and go as they please and imprison them in your hive. They will remember the carefree days that are behind them and seeing the bleakness that is ahead of them will drag down their moods.

2. Don't allow them any freetime privileges. The only activities they must be allowed to do are pollination, honey making and sleeping (and if you limit the amount of this last one, they will be even more unhappy).

3. Don't allow them to eat any of the honey they produce. Doing this will ensure that they are aware they are working for a cruel tyrant and that there is no escape.

This is where your propaganda idea could come in especially useful. Use propaganda to show them how bleak their situation is and they will be your slaves for ever!

I hope that you find this information useful and that it helps you in your quest to become a beekeeper



Go on, BW, send it. You know you want to.

Friday, February 11, 2005

More Health Stuff

I went back to see the doctor yesterday. The results of the blood tests I had almost a month ago showed nothing obviously wrong (the white blood cell count, which was low in my first test, had picked up by the second a few days later) so diagnosis is very difficult. The symptoms have remained pretty much the same, though if anything the have grown a little worse. Some days are better than others. Today, for example has been pretty bad, so far.

Anyway, the doctor examined me but couldn't find anything unusual - my blood pressure was normal and my chest sounded fine. At the moment, her guess is that I am recovering from some sort of viral infection (that I may not have been aware of). She said that it can sometimes take a couple of months to get back up to strength. Personally, I don't subscribe to this theory as it has been going on for quite a lot longer than that. However, I only went to the doctor's for the first time a month ago so for know I'll go along with it. She also said that it could be stress related or maybe even a vitamin deficiency that the tests don't show up. Assuming the condition doesn't deteriorate too rapidly then I am prepared to see how it goes for a while.

Just to be absolutely sure, I went for another round of tests this morning, repeating some I've already had and adding a test for thyroid function, just to rule that out as well. I don't expect them to show anything but we'll see.

However, I have also decided to become more pro-active about the whole thing. First of all, I have bought (at the doctor's suggestion) some vitamin supplements, just in case that is the problem - I doubt it is but you never know for sure. The doctor also said that getting some exercise may help. As perverse as the idea of exercising when you don't feel like you've got enough energy to walk up the stairs sounds, I'll give it a go. Lastly, and this idea is completely my own, I'm going to keep some sort of diary of symptoms to try and get a handle on when they affect me. That way I might be able to work out why.

Of course, time will tell whether any of this will make any difference. I don't think it will but it's worth doing just to eliminate some of the possible causes. In a few more weeks, if I'm not feeling better I'll go back and see what else it could be. Maybe I'll even look towards the alternative side of medicine. That'd be a turn up for an old cynic like me.

Human: Adaptability

For the last post of my 'Human' series, I'm going to write about the attribute that has helped make the human race the most successful species on the planet. Our adaptability.

As I mentioned in my introductory post, it is very easy to come up with examples of animals that can run faster, carry more weight, etc. But try thinking of an animal that can operate in the variety of ways that we can. That's much more difficult.

If you think about it for a moment, the range of relatively basic activities that we can do is quite astounding. Things we learn at a young age and never forget. We can walk; run; swim both underwater and on the surface; climb trees and mountains; jump; carry relatively large loads and throw things accurately.

With the possible exception of walking (which is the most basic and earliest learnt action of them all), we are by no means the best species at any of these activities. However, we are the only animal on this planet that can successfully do all of them. A global Jack-of-all-trades, if you like.

Way back in the mists of time, the fact that we could interact with so much of the world (apart from the deep sea and the highest peaks we could get pretty much everywhere) meant that we learnt more about how to use it to our advantage. As time went on and intelligence and communication skills began to develop, the human race became ever more successful across the whole world.

We put our adaptability to other uses as well. We can readily change the way we live to suit our environment, be it the cold of Antarctica, the heat of the Sahara or the humidity of the Amazon.

The ability to amend our behaviour to suit whatever situation we find ourselves in has allowed us to gain a level of understanding of (and control over) the Earth that is way beyond that of any other species. It has given us our position at the very top of the pecking order and we have been taking advantage of it ever since.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Human: Memory

Have you ever been sitting minding your own business when a smell suddenly transports you back in time to a place you'd almost forgotten and a scene from the past replays in your mind in amazing detail? Did you then stop to wonder just how you were able to recall so much from so long ago?

The human capacity for memory is immense. As I've already mentioned in this series, we can remember the key identifiers for thousands of faces and that's just one of the things we keep in our memories. We store images and events from the past in minute detail; vast amounts of information on a wide range of subjects we learnt at school or picked up through work; languages; songs; books - the list goes on and on. The average person stores memories over a period of sixty years or more. If you were to try to express that in terms of computer storage, the number of bytes required would blow your mind.

Of course, storing huge amounts of data isn't the whole story. It's worth nothing if you can't get at it and the data retrieval mechanism in the human mind makes Google look slow and horribly inaccurate.

The human memory works most effectively by association (i.e. attaching the whole event to a significant object or sense). That's how that smell triggered off a long forgotten memory. It works with songs, pictures, sounds, tastes - all sorts of things. This is also how you remember things with mnemonics. One of the techniques for improving your memory and recall is to think of a number of ordinary objects (rooms in your house, for example) and picture one of them with each thing you want to remember. Then, to later recall it, you only need think of the associated object.

That technique works very well and gives us some of our strongest memories but it certainly isn't the way we remember everything. For example, how is it that I know that the capital of Mongolia is Ulan Bator? I've never been there and don't have any strong connections with the fact but, nevertheless, I can remember it easily. Having heard it repeated a few times, I now find it's one of those pieces of trivia that I simply know.

Memory is one of the most mysterious processes that goes on inside us but at the same time it is one of the most important. I happen to think it is also the basis for our intelligence and is therefore indispensable.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Human: Dexterity

What do a brick, a chocolate eclair, a tennis racket and a piece of tissue paper all have in common? The answer is that they are all things that can be picked up by one hand.

The human hand is a very highly sophisticated tool that has played a very large role in the development of the species from the time when we first came down from the trees. There are scarcely any tasks we routinely perform that do not need the use of our hands. From eating and dressing to getting out of the house, working and playing. All of them are much more difficult to do if you cannot use your hands.

Going back to the list of items above, what then are the differences between them? Well, if you think about it, you pick each of them up and hold them all in different ways. For the eclair and the tissue paper your grip has to be light, otherwise you risk tearing the paper or getting cream down your shirt. The brick, however, will fall out of your hand if your grip is too light. Try using the tennis racket with it gripped between thumb and forefinger, the way you might hold the paper. You won't get many aces if you do.

When you come across a familiar object you instinctively know how best to pick it up without damaging it and holding it so it can be used. When you come across something new, you approach the job carefully, using your fingers to investigate the object until you have worked out the best way to handle it.

Picking things up is just one of the jobs these tools perform. It is also one of the simpler jobs they do, where the thumbs and fingers all work together. The more complicated tasks, like playing the piano or typing involve each digit working independently of each other. That these jobs are more difficult is self-evident, because they have to be taught instead of coming naturally. Once learnt, however, then they do become instinctual.

We also use them to communicate with each other, on both a conscious and a subliminal level. Where would we be without a hand raised in greeting or a fist punching the air in triumph? How much more difficult would it be to exactly express those feelings verbally?

Is our dexterity better than any that of any other animal? Well, that our thumb is opposable (i.e. bends in the opposite direction to our fingers) gives us a big advantage over most animals, but what about those that also have opposable digits? Simply put, our hands are the tools that we use to interact with the objects that surround us. Given that these objects are more numerous, varied and (at times) complicated than those used by, say, chimps, it follows that our control over our hands must be that much more intricate.

Without that control, life would be very much harder.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Short Break

I'm off work for the next two days (it's my birthday tomorrow and I'm taking Friday as well to make it a long weekend) so I probably won't post anything more until next week.

Human: Facial Recognition

One of the most outstanding abilities of the human animal is the ability to recognise faces, or even just parts of faces. Facial recognition is something we mainly do unconsciously and it usually takes just a fraction of a second. But why is it such an amazing talent?

If you count up the number of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances that you know (and recognise with great ease) you would probably come up with hundreds. That's a lot of faces to remember. But wait, that's by no means all of them. How many different people that you don't know but see on a regular basis (on the TV, in magazines etc) whose faces you also know well? Hundreds more? Thousands? And it's not just a case of recognition, this skill allows you to identify the individual that owns that face.

Let's say that the average person in the developed world (i.e. has access to television and other media on a regular basis) can recognise three thousand different people with relative ease (I tend to think that number is probably higher). I can't think of any other animal in the world that lives in a community of that size where there is a need to be able to identify individuals. Other social animals, such as chimps or wolves, can do it, but none as well as we do.

And that's not the extent of the ability, either. How many times have you watched shows like A Question Of Sport, where you have to identify someone from a few oblique shots of different parts of their faces, or a picture that is made up of the eyes from one person, the mouth from another etc, and been able to do it? What about passing an old school-friend, who you haven't seen since you were 16, in the street and knowing who they are despite them having aged considerably? This is where the pattern-matching side of the ability comes into play.

Instead of storing the whole face in your memory, it seems the mind stores each bit (eyes, mouth, nose and so on) separately but linked together so that if you see a pair of eyes that you know, you can reconstruct the rest of the face and therefore identify who they belong to. All that done in a flash. It's pretty amazing, wouldn't you agree?

An extension of the talent is being able to recognise a friend walking towards you long before your eyes are able to pick out individual facial features. Height, weight, hair colour, the way they walk plus a whole host of other factors allow you to identify them.

As a highly social animal, this ability is key to us being able to get along. There are people who lack this ability and only through a huge amount of exposure to a face (or linking it to a strong emotion) are the able to recognise it. For them, it is exceedingly difficult to operate 'normally'.

Facial recognition is a talent we rarely think about and yet do all the time. We would be lost without it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

New series

It's 7.00 p.m. one weekday evening and you settle in front of the television to watch a wildlife programme. The whispering tones of David Attenborough tells you about some animal you've never heard of before and you watch the screen in rapt fascination until he says the following:

"The thigh muscle of the Three-toed Armadillo Antelope is four times as strong as that of a human."

At which point you switch over to Emmerdale instead.

I know it's only natural for us to compare other animals to ourselves but why are the comparisons always in favour of them rather than us? We are told that a hawk can see better than us, a dog can smell better than us and a cat can hear better than us. Then there's the weight that an ant can carry, the height a flea can jump and the speed a cheetah can run. All of them better than us, size for size. I don't ever recall being told that humans are great because we can cook better eggs than sheep can.

Why is that you rarely see programmes about the special talents of the human being? (Yes, alright, I'm conveniently ignoring all the programmes do deal with just that subject, for the purpose of this series.)

To right this wrong I am going to write a few posts about the stuff that we can do that no animal can do better than us (disclaimer: as far as I know ;-) ). And I'm not talking about the obvious things, like how I'm able to sit here composing posts for my blog when man's best friend can only sit and lick his bollocks (although having seen some of the blogs out there, I'm not so sure).

Nor will I write specifically about intelligence, though we are clearly more intelligent than all other animals, with the exception of cows, who are just lulling us into a false sense of security with they're stupid mooing and cud chewing until the moment is right for them to take over the world. I mean, have you seen what they get up to in the Dairylea ads?

Anyway, it's the innate abilities that I'm more interested in, the things we do by instinct rather than logical thought. So, starting here tomorrow will be my 'Human' series.