Archive for March, 2014

Paracetamol, Aspirin, Fashion and Changing Disease Patterns.

March 25, 2014

I remember the last days of  “A cup of tea, a Bex, and a good lie down.”  I also remember the reports that kidney failure  was related to Bex’s phenacetin and digestive tract ulcers were  linked to its aspirin, and  the start of the emphasis on paracetamol (AKAacetaminophen  in the USA)  as a safe alternative.

Now there is research suggesting that aspirin use has many useful side effects.  This has hit the popular press – compare and

There are also problems with overuse of paracetamol having its own risks, and (unlike aspirin) it does not much reduce inflammation, so will not provide the same range of beneficial side effects as aspirin.  (As an aside,  it has great value for those who cannot risk aspirin’s blood-thinning properties, and for those young enough to be at risk of Reye’s syndrome.)  Other new painkillers (e.g. ibuprofen, naproxen) are selling well, and will no doubt be found to have a range of unexpected good and bad side effects.  There is a lot unknown about analgesics – for example, they don’t yet know why some people don’t respond to some analgesics, but some genes (e.g. melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R)) seem to play a role.

The statistics on western women’s life expectancies in the seventies were based on generations of women who used aspirin-based medicines to keep going when family needs meant they had to keep going – no sick leave for Mothers.   (Well, not until they got bleeding bowels or failed kidneys from other things in the painkillers.)  They also had generations of  men who soldiered on bravely – painkillers were for softies.  And generations where women got heart problems and the diseases of aging later than the men.

Now we have a generation who changed from aspirin to paracetamol and other analgesics, and  under 40s who grew up with paracetamol for both genders.  Here is one more  public health change among the thousands of deliberate improvements in our lives.

And look, the gap between the genders’ life expectancies has shrunk while both genders have greater life expectancies.

Ten years ago I said that there would be a decline in the gap between the genders’ life expectancies.  I would now bet that there will be a continued decline in the gap between male and female  life expectancies, possibly a reversal of the gap, and that the change will have many causes.  I expect that most of the talk will be about the social changes such as mothers working outside the home – but I hope someone does some research on the outcomes by preferred general painkiller.

“Just cats and porno…” Pfui! My internet is different.

March 25, 2014

The internet one sees depends on the links one follows, and the same applies to its famous subset, facebook.

I get a few cute cats via facebook – and yes, I have shared some – but I ee a range of things that the popular media do not have in the public image of the net.  Spotted on facebook:  in a discussion of

‘The mindblowing issue that Weber raised: Beruf cannot be worship….but yet it IS somehow. Ever wondered if the world would be different without the Reformation?”

( beruf : calling, duty, task)   – (link to see a translation of  Politik als Beruf, part of the background to the discussion.)

one post:

“The Protestant work ethic in Weber’s time

By the time Weber wrote his essay, he believed that the religious underpinnings of the Protestant ethic had largely gone from society. He cited the writings of Benjamin Franklin, which emphasized frugality, hard work and thrift, but were mostly free of spiritual content. Weber also attributed the success of mass production partly to the Protestant ethic. Only after expensive luxuries were disdained, could individuals accept the uniform products, such as clothes and furniture, that industrialization offered.

In his remarkably prescient conclusion to the book, Weber lamented that the loss of religious underpinning to capitalism’s spirit has led to a kind of involuntary servitude to mechanized industry.

“ The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage. (Page 181, 1953 Scribner’s edition.) ”

Weber maintained that while Puritan religious ideas had significantly impacted the development of economic system in Europe and United States, there were other factors in play, as well. They included a closer relationship between mathematics and observation, the enhanced value of scholarship, rational systematization of government administration, and an increase in entrepreneurship ventures. In the end, the study of Protestant ethic, according to Weber, investigated a part of the detachment from magic, that disenchantment of the world that could be seen as a unique characteristic of Western culture.[5]:60

And among the responses:

Weber was desperate to conceal the labour theory of value; he thus places the foundation for capitalism in the ‘work ethic’ falling back on the old moralism of Adam Smith that wealth comes from the ‘hard work’ of an individual. Nonsense. Wealth is accumulated from the surplus value (unpaid labour) of the workers put to work by the capitalist. And why are these people available to be put to work? Because their birthrights in the common lands were stolen by a previous generation of emerging capitalists.

These are just adults talking about ideas that interest them in light of current events and a fair knowledge of history and sociological/political/economic theory, in geographically separate lives.   I know that some of them have read and understood Weber’s works in the context of the time in which they were  written.

I am glad that they have the opportunity to chat this way, and that I can read  the conversation the next day.   I have the opportunity to think about it, find further resources, and decide whether to join in – and in the process, question my own assumptions about the society in which I live.

I love this application of technology.

Do the politicians think we have no memory? Part 3

March 23, 2014

After an Australian election, if  one party gets a majority of the whole population vote but another party wins the majority of seats the losing  politicians regularly grumble, throwing around words like “gerrymander.”

Politicians say they want schools to teach students to understand and value our way of government.  They say they want schools to emphasise teaching of history, and it is an important part of our history that a great deal of care was put into setting up our system, which started peacefully and by negotiation well after the hasty and violent starts of the main European countries and the USA.   They say they want these things in the curriculum,  but I wonder whether they want voters to remember their schooling when they come to vote.

Background  to  the Australian Electoral System

(Skip this if you know it already)

It was a deliberate choice to have States’ federal Senate numbers equal regardless of population and representing proportional votes within each State, to prevent the tyranny of the majority.   They were certainly influenced by John Calhoun’s ideas on concurrent majority as an approach to the problem, ideas still discussed this century .   It was also a deliberate choice to have each voter  have as many preferential votes as there are candidates up for election in the State,¹ a change made in 1949, even though the mathematics and vote tracing were horribly curly in the days before computerised  counting.    A voter may vote for all one party first, or one Green, one Independent, one Labor, one Liberal, and one Euthanasia party candidate, then mix up the remaining candidates in any order as long as each candidate has ves preferred number on the paper.  If a candidate has more first preferences than ve needs (one-sixth-plus-one of the votes is the quota if there are 6 seats), ves surplus votes are distributed as first preferences in proportion to the preferences of the voters who gave ver the votes.  Candidates who get less than the fraction needed to get a seat are knocked out from least votes up, and at each step the loser’s votes next preferences are distributed and the scrutineers check whether someone has got the quota.    (Messy!  I’m not making this up – check with the Australian Electoral Commission)  No wonder they introduced “Or you can tick one party’s box and we will distribute all their preferences the way they have told the us to.”

It was also a deliberate choice to have each House of Representative seat linked to its own area (and electorates other than islands are single patches of land), and that the voters from that area  vote  for  individual candidates as individuals, though the candidates  could ally to parties.  That way, local interests could be well represented by someone known to the locals.   Also, in each area, the voter has preferential votes as in the Senate – so that if they like Alan but would rather have Jan than Ursula if they can’t have Alan, they can try for Alan but know that Jan will get their vote if he fails.  They just number the order of preference in the candidates’ boxes.  This means that you don’t get someone hated by 60% of the electorate into the seat just because the 60% have slightly different ideas about the best way to do things and vote for 3 other candidates first.  If they all prefer a 4th to the 40%er, they get their way.


For philosophical reasons, State governments have been selling off State-owned housing in expensive areas, buying housing in less expensive locations,  and subsidising private rentals for those in need – who can seldom get private rentals in the prime locations.   In addition, those short of money sell out of high-value areas to free up the money, and the wealthy seek houses close to well-known exclusive schools and other valued social resources.  This has led to the service-providers (shop assistants, teachers, police, cleaners, etc) having to travel long distances to work, and tertiary students having to travel hours to their studies, with the associated travel costs – while the wealthy are within easy foot or  public transport access of resources.  This is fair in the  eyes of those benefiting from the user-pays  approach, and they see its good points:  after all, if the State provided enough low cost housing in the  upmarket areas, the dregs of society would lower property values.  An additional benefit is that the local State schools have a better class of student and parents and thus better outcomes than in the more difficult suburbs..

You got over half the total but not enough seats.  Problem?

True, there are many reasons people vote their different ways, but let’s pretend that wealth-aligned interests are usually enough to swing the vote.  Let us assume that the electoral boundaries are fair, with pretty similar numbers in each electorate, and thus there is no real gerrymander.  Our Electoral Commission does work at being fair that way.

Pretend there are 10 electorates.

Rich party has 90% of the votes in each of 4 electorates.

Poor party has 60% of the votes in each of 6 electorates.

% of total voters                   %  of total vote             seats / 10

R 36%        P 4%                                 40%                      4

R 24%        P 36 %                              60%                      6

total votes by  party                 R 60 %        P 40 %

Total seats by party                 R   4             P  6

Don’t complain.  This was part of the design of the Australian system, deliberately included to control concentrated power groups with regional agendas inimical to the wider society.   This is in the curriculum – the intersection of History with Society and Environment.   Why don’t the journalists call the politicians on this, rather than just quoting them?

I am so annoyed that I am going to shout.  

If  you want a greater proportion of the seats, have a better distribution of your supporters across electorates. 

A good start would be:  Get out of your enclaves of power, and make housing available for the “lower orders” closer to the places that they work.  If you can’t stop the worsening inequality, at least reduce home address’s value as a predictor of socioeconomic status.  


¹ I know, it is really “a preferential vote” but they used be allowed to number only a limited number of preferences and I wanted to make the distinction .

Spotted: double standards

March 17, 2014

I have seen several posts about this, and thought it interesting that the conversation was about the questions of whether Tony Abbot could be a feminist and whether Michaelia Cash should see herself as a feminist (Being in the Senate House, not the kitchen…)

Seemed to me it is more an acceptance of the perception problem that confronts women in so many places: what is assertive in a man is aggressive in a woman; what is “reasonable use of flextime” for a man  is “making allowances” for the breadwinner woman.  A typical example is at

It is clear that, in the political arena of Australia, a male politician who appreciates clever and confident women and has several in high subordinate positions (wife, daughter, head of staff in his office, cabinet ministers when he is PM) will see himself as a feminist:  he is happy for them to have careers, and he will pitch in and take responsibility for his share of the work.  He just doesn’t notice the double standards and the problem of women’s social invisibility in meetings – after all, he is an alpha male and doesn’t have to experience it.  He is seen as more sensitive and even assertive  if he says that he is a feminist.

The female conservative politician who claims she is not a feminist is not claiming to have been given her job as a favour from some man.  She is cannily avoiding the trap of being seen as an aggressive harridan who wants to subjugate all men.  She is seen as more sensitive and assertive if she “resists the pressure” to say she is a feminist.  For a woman seeking right-wing support, being an avowed feminist is like being “too clever”  or “atheist” :  her male audience immediately expect her to be  unfeminine, possibly lesbian, probably aggressive, and definitely too big for her boots.

Therefore, I do not condemn Senator Cash.   She has no doubt learned from Julia Gillard’s fate.  She knows her place on the ticket, and is doing the right things to keep it.

A Newspaper’s exam hints – (sigh.)

March 9, 2014

In “10 writing tips when sitting a written exam”  I read – yes, I read on despite the probable quality  given  the title’s poor construction – :

“Affect / Effect – Effect is a noun.  For example – Cyclone Connor had a great effect on the town.  Affect is a verb(doing word).  For example, – The virus affected Libby so much that she had two days off school.”

(Sunday Times “Chillout” NAPLAN liftout, 09.03.14)

This explanation is, to be polite, sub-optimal.  The explanation given means that the students are not prepared for real world uses of the words. Both words ARE  used as noun and verb.  The REAL difference lies in the prefix.

The root is the Latin facere, “to do or to make” – the same root as “factory”.  The prefixes are ex– (outward or out of) and ad-  (towards or onto)  which assimilate to the “f” of facere to make the words effect and affect.

The noun is the outcome of the verb.  Thus, when you effect a change in something, you have an effect on it – the change goes out from the one who is the centre of our attention.

Affect is the change from the point of view of the one changed: If you affect an accent or a style of dress, you put it on your self; the virus affects you when it has an effect on you.  It is usually used as a verb, but is also a noun.  The noun “affect” means feeling or visible emotional response: “The depressed man showed flat affect.”

This leads to different understandings of other words.  For example, consider “Affection”: feelings making one want to go towards a thing, a different play on the same root and prefix;   “Affectation”: a style or behaviour  affected for effect.

Explaining it this way leads to improved comprehension and spelling, as more words are analysed in terms of their prefixes, suffixes, and roots.  Seeing our words as Lego-like constructions is a powerful literacy approach – and a great tip to help with written exams.

How hard is it to get it right? If newspaper conglomerates can’t afford an academic’s consulting fee, how much does a literate journalist cost?  Remember, the ones most likely to read them are the ones who have few other sources to check.  Do newspapers have a social responsibility here?

Why I am optimistic

March 4, 2014

Many people I know are less prone to depression than I am, yet seem overall more down when they talk about the world and the people in it.

Why?  Partly  because I grew up in a politically aware household, and understood the huge changes in and from the years of my childhood.  So many people don’t seem to have paid attention, and don’t realise how much things can change in our country.  Partly because I know some deep history of places-other-than-this, so I know how much human lives have changed globally, how they can react to a changing environment, and just how amazingly NICE many people can be.

But, day to day, I find the thing that keeps me up-beat is … reading New Scientist and listening to ABC Radio National science/health programs.

Here’s an example.   New Scientist, page 18, 22 Feb 2014, “Tiny rod reels cancer cells to their death.”

So you have glioblastoma,  brain cancer cells, sitting beside some vital part of the brain that you really don’t want to lose, building up numbers and crushing something like your ability to make new memories, or to distinguish between your wife and a hat until one of them speaks.   If you cut out the cancer you may lose the ability anyway, and drugs to kill the cancer may kill you before they kill all the cancer.

So the doctors get a thin tube lined with a sneaky material, and at the top have a chemotherapy gel.  They poke the tube down into the cancer, and the cancer cells crawl up the tube and are killed with minimal disruption to your biochemistry.  Imagine saying to your cancer “Crawl off and die!”

Imagine if they put a collection chamber on the end and an access-flap in your skull, and took out live cells to analyse their weaknesses, or to prime your immune system against them.

How cool is that?  It brightened my whole day.