Thursday, July 24, 2008

What I think

Of course, this whole blog is what I think, so that isn’t a very good title. But in the comments to the post just below about the problem of radiation poisoning in the 25th century I have ended up in the position of more or less defending the Catholic party line on contraception, which is not precisely what I think. This runs the risk that I will go on exchanging comments at cross purposes in an unproductive way. And as what I think on this issue is one of those things that I have never been game to set down on virtual paper, it is probably overdue for me to write what I think.

The Orthodox position of the Churches of the East is self-consistent and logical within its postulates in rejecting all forms of birth control. It is also unworkable, and universally ignored, as the only traditionally Orthodox nation not in demographic free-fall that I can think of is Ethiopia.

Humanae vitae departs from this logical and traditional position of all historical Christian churches by allowing- hedged about with various caveats- the use of temporal barriers to conception. It rightly condemns strongly the ‘direct interruption of the generative process already begun’, as well as deliberate sterilization. However, this message is blurred because it condemns without making any distinction (‘Similarly excluded…’) the use of spatial barriers to conception.

I do not see any fundamental meaningful difference between a barrier method in time and a barrier method in space. I do not think the distinction drawn between them in Humanae vitae is very clear or particularly valid. If both forms of barrier method were lawful, hedged about with various caveats, then the line in the sand could be clearly drawn at conception and defended with vigour on the basis of the very clear commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’.

Is that clear? I am saying that it would be more logical, within the shared postulates of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic thought, to have made the compromise with modernity at such a point that a very clear distinction was made between grudgingly allowed methods such as natural family planning and condoms on the one hand and absolutely forbidden methods such as ‘the pill’ – which may interrupt the generative process already begun, even if such is not their main intent- on the other.

I am not entirely convinced that what I think is right, but all my doubts are in the direction of tradition, not away from it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lest we remember

Over at Klaus Rohde’s blog, he has mentioned the Phillipine-American War.

You might know of this war in connection with this work.

It was also the inspiration for The War Prayer by Mark Twain.

While concurring entirely with Mark Twain, I observe that what he wrote can readily be tweaked, just a little, to make another document that I also concur with entirely.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fragments from the 25th Century

Far be it from me to grudge the Farseer and his entourage a warm welcome to K’toomba Dome, still less refrain from extending our legendary hospitality to the hundreds of pilgrims who have crossed many leagues of blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland to come here. Even without the infectious enthusiasm of these dusty, maimed fanatics, there are few among us who do not recognise the spiritual power of the Farseer, or respect his principled stand, for instance, against the Emperor’s war on the cannibal mutants. Yet, we should remember the darker side of what the Farseer stands for. All over the continent, at this very moment, thousands of men, women, children, and sentient quoll-people are suffering from radiation sickness. Many will die agonising deaths. Why? Because the Farseer forbids his followers from wearing lead-lined garments. Because of this irrational religious mania, a simple and effective safeguard against radiation is neglected, and countless wretched victims are condemned to a horrible existence. Vomiting, weakness, hair loss, bleeding, recurrent infections, anemia. It is an unspeakable and ghastly malady. Some will survive, only to be stricken down with cancers in later life. Many will not survive. Remember this, next week, when you see the joyous crowds of worshippers throwing garlands of flowers at the Farseer. Remember this.

* * *
[Our reporter caught up with Cassowary Jorj T’eepot, leader of the Farseer’s followers in the Blue Mountains and organiser of the Sacred Festivities. After making inquiries as to the Farseer’s health after his arduous journey from Wee Waa, and congratulating the Cassowary on his preparation for the Farseer’s visit, our reporter raised the contentious issue of the Faith’s anti-lead stance.]

Was the Farseer taken aback by the protests? I understand he looked rather bemused.

The protests? Oh, yes. Handing out lead loincloths to passers-by. Very childish, really. Actually, I don’t think he was taken aback. One might think that this sort of thing is only something that the Faithful have to put up with in a cosmopolitan, secular place like K’toomba Dome, but even in the sacred city of Wee Waa there are people who resent the Farseer’s condemnation of lead, there are protests from time to time.

I suppose it is not surprising that the Faith’s lead ban is resented, with the problem of radiation sickness.

Well, as you know, radioactivity is associated exclusively with the ruins of the ancients. The Faith teaches that the ruins of the ancients are cursed by God, and strictly forbids any of the Faithful to enter them. The signs of dangerous levels of radioactivity are very obvious- sickly plants, sand melted into glassy slag, twisted ruins, malformed animals covered with lesions...

But you can’t just expect people to stay out ancient ruins, can you? It goes against human nature. There is all sorts of neat loot in those places. You have to admit that whatever you say, people are still going to go into radioactive ruins. If they do, shouldn’t they be wearing lead clothing?

Well, there are a few problems with that. The first is that, as you know, lead is not 100% effective against radiation. People have ventured into ancient ruins wearing lead clothing and died from radiation sickness. The second is that, lead is itself toxic: there are illnesses associated with being exposed to lead. And most importantly, what lead clothing does is, it normalises entering radioactive zones. If it is seen as something that is safe, something that is fun, then there will be pressure for everyone to do it. Some of them will be exposed to unsafe levels of radiation. And radiation is not the only danger in the ruins: there are cannibal mutants, we hear of people coming across still-functioning killer robots with laser eyes, for example.

Let me pose you another question, Cassowary. What about the ‘innocents’? People who have never ventured into radioactive zones themselves but are exposed, say, when someone else in their dome goes into a ruin and comes out with an artifact that gives out radioactive rays of death? Wouldn’t lead clothing protect them in that situation?

I think, anyone untrustworthy enough to bring a radioactive artifact into a dome like that, they’re hardly going to tell the others in the dome that they should wear lead garments, will they? They’re not the sort of person who is going to be swayed by what you or the Farseer or anyone tells them about ethical conduct. In the old days- and I’m not saying that we should go back to the old ways, mind you- but in the old days, someone like that would have been staked out in the desert for the death toads.

But if everyone in the dome wore lead clothing as a matter of course, that wouldn’t be an issue, would it?

No, it wouldn’t. But there would be a much graver issue. It would show that no one in that dome trusted one another, that they didn’t think they could rely on each other. And a dome like that is not going to last. The next time that bandits attack, the next plague of flesh-eating locusts- a dome like that is going to fall.

Well… I’m afraid that’s all we have time for, Cassowary. I hope the Sacred Festivities go off without a hitch for you.

Thank you.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Hidden Cost of Global Warming

Here is some data- which was very hard to find- giving the average monthly death rate in Australia:

And just to show that 1999 was not a fluke:

If, like me, you subscribe to the germ theory of disease popularised by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century, the obvious explanation for this trend is an annual celestial event- perhaps the Earth passing through the cloud of comet debris associated with Comet 96P/Machholz, causing a rain of deadly space bacteria to Earth.

But... in the Northern Hemisphere, these same months are associated with lower mortality rates! The winter months seem to be more unhealthy if you live in a developed country in the temperate zone, despite the fact that they are less conducive for microbial growth. Go figure. Here are some data for Germany, New Zealand, and Macedonia. (Note that if you are not a developed country, the germ theory holds up just fine: a hundred years ago, our death rate was highest in summer, due to juvenile diarrhea. Actually the figures I saw on this are only for Perth c.1900 and Bangladesh today, but I am going out on a limb and generalising.)

Now, we could try mounting a complicated ad hoc rescue of the germ theory where clouds of space bacteria lurk a little above and below the plane of the ecliptic, or need to strike the atmosphere at a shallow angle to avoid burning up... but it seems that there are a whole slew of disorders, comprising the bulk of mortality, for which even small reductions in temperature give an increase in mortality. Maybe some of this mortality difference is true seasonality, but it looks like- for whatever reason- it is related to cold weather.

So who are these people who are dying? This paper from New Zealand suggests that this increase is accounted for almost entirely by deaths of people over 65. It seems logical that they will be disproportionately the ones who are sick already, and the ones who are poorer. Though I don’t have any data for this.

Thus, these excess deaths are accounted for by people, who statistically:

(1) Contribute much less to the economy than the average.

(2) Consume much more health care than the average.

Thus, cold weather clearly has an economic benefit by removing an unproductive population who are a burden on the economy. I remember that Ross Garnaut always used to write articles in the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald about the economic challenges posed by an aging population, so it is no surprise he is worried about global warming.

I believe he points out that some of this shortfall in deaths of the weak and aged might be made up for by heat-related deaths in summer, but the statistics we've looked at on seasonality of mortality in the developed world show that this is very unlikely. Unless, perhaps, we mount a crash program of not building power plants and letting electricity infrastructure decay, to increase the probability that old folks will be trapped at home without functional air-conditioning during episodes of extreme hot weather.

A serious study is required to determine if the economic cost of maintaining all these unhealthy old people will be outweighed by some of the economic benefits of global warming- such as longer dry-periods in southern Australia forcing an end to uneconomic uses of marginal land, or increased first-world mosquito-borne disease giving drug companies a greater incentive to develop treatments for these endemic third world problems.

So what is the moral of this?

It could be that a ‘cost/benefit’ analysis is never value-neutral. One person’s cost is another person’s benefit. And a short-term cost might turn out to be a long-term benefit, and vice versa. Dollars in cost/benefit analyses are not like milligrams in chemical analyses. They are more rubbery, subjective, and flamboyant entities.

It could be that it is snarky and dishonest to talk about the likely negative health effects of global warming and ignore the likely positive ones. There is this trivial point which you should verify for yourselves, not trusting me, and that you should then bring up in conversation often, that death rates in the developed world correlate overall with cold weather, not with hot weather.

Or, the moral could be that I am nothing but a contrarian sophist. Maybe I am just being silly. It guess there's a good chance that this excess seasonal mortality has nothing to do with climate, and its really all due to those weirdly gyrating clouds of space bacteria.