500 words – science, anyone?

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The reported incidence of Crohn’s disease in Canterbury, New Zealand has doubled over the past decade, crowning the region with the highest reported incidence globally. Scientists around the world believe environmental factors are contributing to this disconcerting rise. In this investigation, we present the research on a disease found primarily in dairy cattle called Johne’s disease, which has the same symptoms as Crohn’s disease and is recognised on over half of all dairy farms in New Zealand. If the MAP bacteria which causes the immune responses in dairy cattle is tested and found in our local drinking water supplies, our air and our dairy products, we could be facing a public health issue of massive proportions.

OMG! Humans have a disease called Crohn’s disease that’s quite a lot like something called Johne’s disease! It even sounds the same, which obviously means it’s caused by the same thing! It’s totally like the time I got a nuclear hangover from drinking Manhattans. And it might be in our drinking water? Our dirty, dirty water? Oh God, I’m totally only drinking Coke Zero from now on! There’s public health crisis of massive proportions looming!

Thank God for plucky journalists who’re willing to lay out the circumstantial case for a public health epidemic.

For listeners at home, here’s the article in a nutshell;

– MAP bacteria causes Crohn’s disease.

– MAP is spread to humans by cow shit in the water. It is virtually un-killable.

– The increasing rate of Crohn’s in Canterbury is a direct result of the dairy conversions of the last two decades.

MAP is causing the increasing rates of Crohn’s disease in Canterbury because of dirty dairying!

And now for a spoonful of Mum’s Anti-Hysteria Elixir…..

There’s nothing new about the link between MAP bacteria and Crohn’s disease. Around 30-50% of cases of Crohn’s are likely due to MAP infection.

The incidence of Crohn’s has doubled in Canterbury in the last decade, but this is in line with the rest of New Zealand. New Zealand’s rate is on a par with many other western countries.

So why single out Canterbury? Presumably because of the initial study in 2006 that showed that Canterbury’s rate had experienced a rather rapid increase (bringing it into line with other western nations). Perhaps something happened in Canterbury leading up to 2006 that caused this increase? Perhaps it was coming off a low base?

Of course, the article is quick to suggest an answer;

A 2008 Canterbury study found that intensive dairy farming and the use of border-strip irrigation increased the concentrations of E-Coli and Campylobacter in nearby groundwater, impacting drinking water supplies. Large scale conversion and intensification of agricultural land in Canterbury is clearly linked to decreases in water quality and the resulting increase in waterborne diseases. The result is that in 2015 alone, E-Coli was detected in Christchurch’s untreated water supply 14 times, raising debate on whether the supply should now be treated.

The water got heaps dirtier! If there’s more MAP in the water, there’s more Crohn’s disease! Right? I mean, JOIN THE DOTS sheeple!

Here’s the thing. MAP is waterborne, but it’s also airborne, through dust especially. It’s in milk. And cheese too. Mmmm cheese…..

It should therefore come as no surprise that the rates of MAP infection are rising all over the world. As dairying intensifies, so does MAP. This is why New Zealand’s rate has doubled in the last ten years. So has everyone else’s.

So yeah, more cows, more intensive dairying causes an increase in MAP bacteria. There are more cows in Canterbury, and therefore more MAP. But to suggest that water is its primary vector is disingenuous – it’s in the air, the food and definitely Cats that Make You LOL.

In fact, so many humans are infected with MAP a better question might be; Why do only some people acquire Crohn’s disease and others don’t?

In other words, why are some people’s digestive tracts able to cope with MAP infection while others are not? (It also doesn’t answer why people without MAP develop Crohn’s, which is surely something Crohn’s sufferers would like to know).

This is what’s known as a multi-factorial clusterfuck. It’s hard to isolate causative factors. And what about the rate of C-sections? Or the widespread use of antibiotics?

It’s unclear why the rates of Crohn’s were high (for NZ) in Canterbury in 2006. Maybe Cantabrians ate more cheese? Maybe the increasing numbers of cows on the plains caused an increase in airborne MAP? Maybe there’s another as yet undiscovered factor at work, perhaps excessive exposure to unflued gas heaters or higher than average ingestion of that caramel popcorn from Countdown on Moorhouse Ave oh how you betrayed me you dirty sticky balls of blissbitch?

Where was I?

Yes. The article does talk about these other methods of transmission, but the focus is clearly on water. Dear reader, the message is clear; Dirty water = Crohn’s disease.

Let’s consider something that wasn’t in the article; Farmers and their families seem to have some kind of immunity to MAP. This is likely due to exposure of extracellular forms of the bacteria, in other words, cow shit. Given the shit-to-water ratio of water in the rest of NZ, perhaps we might argue that the reason Cantabrians have such high rates of MAP is lower rates of immunity amongst the population due to lack of exposure to cow shit as children.

Stand by for the next winning public health campaign;

Come on in, kids, the water’s wade-able! 

Or perhaps; You’re Soaking In It!

I’m all for fanning the hysteria over New Zealand’s appalling water quality. It’s a fucking travesty, but as someone who lobbied ECAN hard in the early 2000s, I can tell you, they came by it honestly. We all knew it was a matter of a few years before Christchurch’s artesian drinking water was gone for good.

No-one gave a rat’s clasper about it then, but it’s heartening that people seem interested now (about 20 years too late).

I often read articles from Wake Up NZ – they do a good, and important job. But cherry picking information to make a case that is at best wobbly and at worst misrepresentative of the data just exposes a weak flank. New Zealand’s water quality is a big enough story without resorting to this kind of ‘investigative’ journalism.



500 words: Blistering blue barnacles

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At a party, many years ago, I listened to a supercilious biology student holding court over genetically modified crops. It was a gentler time, the bucolic 1990s, back when the world still had the capacity to consider the implications of complicated environmental catastrophes before the blitzkrieg of climate change marched in like a gigantine toddler on the piss.

I listened to his points as he skirted a more common and immediate catastrophe; ‘local warming’ – the deadly combination of flaming black sambuca and lubricious pirate shirt.

I don’t remember much more about that evening, most likely overwhelmed by a combination of menthol smoke and Joop but I do remember thinking that lung cancer could be caused by radiation. Which I knew, I suppose, because…..radon. And it’s well known that people who undergo radiation therapy have higher rates of other cancers later down the track. What was new to me was the idea that cigarettes contained significant amounts of radioactive material – polonium.

When It Comes to our Cigarettes, Polonium is the Least of your Worries! – Rothmans, 1987

That’s right, cigarettes are filled to the brim with carcinogenic materials, all competing to see which one will polish you off first, but they also contain significant amounts of polonium. Radioactive substances occur in nature all over the place but tobacco seems to concentrate polonium, more so than other plants. Further, it seems that much of the radioactive juju that ends up in the plant comes from the large amounts of fertiliser used in its growth,

The fertilizer that farmers use to increase the size of their tobacco crops contains the naturally occurring radionuclide, radium. Radium radioactively decays to release radon, which rises from the soil around the plants. The radon and its decay products cling to the sticky hairs (trichomes) on the bottom of tobacco leaves as the plant grows.

That’s where I got really curious, and I still am. After all, not all fertilisers are created equal (the panic is generally around phosphate based fertilisers).

As with anything science related, misleading analogies abound. For instance, I’ve heard that smoking 1.5 packets a day is like being exposed to 300 chest xrays a year – which is ridiculous because at least one of them would show up a dirty great tumour bubbling away.

Ahhh where was I?

Ah yes. I’ve had a bit of a look and decided that there is a risk of contracting lung cancer through exposure to polonium, but it’s probably very small compared to your risk of being fritzed by any one of the other nasties in tobacco lining up to do you in. It seems that it might cause about 120-138 lung cancer deaths per year per 1,000 regular smokers.

Some interesting facts emerged from this article;

Acid wash was discovered in 1980 to be highly effectively in removing (210)Po from the tobacco leaves; however, the industry avoided its use for concerns that acid media would ionize nicotine converting it into a poorly absorbable form into the brain of smokers thus depriving them of the much sought after instant “nicotine kick” sensation.

I’m leaving this with more questions than answers;

– how can we know the rate at which other plants extract and concentrate polonium out of fertiliser? I don’t know, but I’d like to.

– what’s the impact on passive smokers? Can that even be isolated, given the complexity of multiplicative effects?

Tertiary education: predatory lending

In my role as hardworking commercial cleaner I recently had the misfortune to encounter the end of a university exam. A young woman in floods of tears was being gently informed that she would need to leave the room as she was distracting the other students.

‘I didn’t get any of it…’ was the only thing I heard her say through the gulping.

How do these unprepared students find themselves in these university courses?

Well, the pressure to attract and retain university students is immense. More students = more money. Universities compete with one another for students, often drastically lowering the entry requirements at the beginning of the academic year to boost their bums-on-seats. Except there aren’t seats, because many Australian universities are now moving to a ‘flipped classroom’ model, where lectures are delivered online so domestic students can ignore them in their own time, and international students pay someone to watch them for them. It’s cheaper, you see.

Here’s the shortfall between what universities say they require for admission and what they actually accept;

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Stolen from Fairfax


And here’s a graph showing the increase in student numbers since 1972

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Stolen from The Conversation

In 1972 two percent of Australians held a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. By 2011 18.8% had one.

Of course, in 1972 not everyone could attend university – clever Aboriginal kids weren’t filling the lecture halls for example. University has become more accessible, to be sure, but this alone doesn’t account for the meteoric rise in student numbers. That rise can be mostly attributed to falling standards.

Of course, the race-to-the-bottom of undergraduate expectations gradually devalues all Australian degrees. Perhaps the only consequence of any interest to a university sector so completely reliant on international students’ money is the resultant depreciation in the value of their degrees.

But that’s long term thinking! STOP IT.

In there here-and-now post-graduate degrees have emerged as the new Bachelor’s degree which funnels more students into post-grad – after all, they’re good value – they require less teaching from academics and actually perform the majority of undergrad teaching.

The government loves students too – you’re not listed as unemployed if you’re studying, it’s like being on the dole, except at some point you’ll have to pay it back! And the implications of HECS are now well known – it simply places graduates into higher effective tax bracket, further concentrating the inequities of the housing market against them.

Universities are also providing the education that kids could once expect at public high schools – only this way, they help pay for it themselves.

My observations are fairly pedestrian, I suppose, until you encounter the real cost – the woefully underprepared post grad student, who gained entry to their Masters or PhD on the basis of their Bachelor’s Degree, only to discover that, at some point, they’re actually expected to know something, to understand something, to learn something. Finally, there is a piece of assessment that cannot be fudged, interpreted subjectively or constantly whittled away with concessions to ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’ – (an academic friend tells me it is not unusual for more than 50% of his students to be listed as having a disability – almost all due to ‘anxiety’).

They’ve already paid for several years of uni, and are now hopelessly outgunned by the work. This, to me, is predatory lending. No wonder there are so many tears.



The new old new revival of the old new

This Vogue article invites us to ‘meet the millennial musicians behind Jamaica’s new movement’, when in fact what we are being asked to do is meet the influence of the millennial audience.

Because I’ve seen it before – this ‘new’ music is not new. It is reggae pop, heavily produced with an American radio audience in mind. Consider these two songs, the first from one of the ‘revival’s’ heavyweights; Proteje;

Or perhaps this one;

Now, are you thinking of, say, Inner Circle? Can’t blame you. I’ve certainly heard this before.

I can’t help thinking that it all sounds like New Zealand reggae from the 1990s (reggae being more or less ubiquitous in the 70s-90s). Anyway, Vogue’s newfound ‘reggae revival’ sounds a lot like this to me;

This is NZ reggae outfit Katchafire, from about the late 90s (judging from the milk bottles).

I think this is a case of Vogue’s millennial agenda – ‘we invented a reggae revival!’.

No, you dewds invented heaps of stuff – like being endlessly vapid on bottomless social media platforms. There isn’t a reggae revival, there’s just a small group of middle class Jamaican musicians who’ve recognised the key to getting a bit richer is selling into the US, which means toning down the ‘kill the batty boy’ angle and playing up the ‘I love trees’ angle, being extremely repetitive and chucking in an auto tuner.

500 words – Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 50s

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Rothko. Modernism. I like it.

Who’s up for some intellectual whiplash this morning?

Right. Today’s 500 words is about sociology. Or maybe it’s cultural studies, I’m not really sure. Let’s call it a yard sale of consciousness.

I have a friend with a PhD in English literature. She and I both read a lot of what might be called Cultural Studies. I come at it from Anthropology/Sociology, she comes at it from English Lit. We meet at the French woodchipper. That is, many of the ‘cultural studies’ theorists come from the French existential tradition.

For me cultural studies is about the social imagination of space and place. I’m thinking of theorists LeFebvre and John Law in particular. Yes, they are quite different but they best sum up my previous approaches to thinking about how the humans imagine themselves as constituted. They dovetail nicely with ideas about late capitalism and materialism (in the Marxist sense – c.f Baudrilliard) and are backgrounded by the semiotics of the usual suspects, Lacanian/Saussurian deconstruction of linguistic modernism from dudes like Levi-Strauss. If you didn’t get anything in this paragraph ignore it. It’s an approach as legitimate as any other.

Essentially, this process follows the same process as classical mechanics versus quantum physics – imagine if everything you thought you knew was wrong, because your brain can only think about it in one way. You’d keep trying to understand the new observations through the old brain. But what if, by studying the old brain, we came to develop the imagination to interpret new ideas, or even old ideas, in new ways.

In physics it works – we move from reductionism to probability. In cultural studies, it’s fashionable bullshit. And it’s people like me who’re to blame.

I made a very nice life for myself, for quite some time, by being good at this stuff. It inherently made sense to me and, as I entered post grad, I found myself within an ever diminishing group of people who were conversant in these ideas. You’ll note I used the word ‘conversant’ rather than ‘cogniscient’. I’m not sure we all understood these theorists in the same way, but their ambiguity is precisely their strength – it serves as a springboard for extending the imagination; (The lazy tutor’s refrain) Well, what do you think it means? Out of this questions might emerge our own revelations that enable us to think about social and cultural life in new ways. It did for me.

That’s the good.

The bad, of course, is that you now have a small group of people who’re flailing about in an increasingly abstruse, self-referential miasma of ‘ideas’. There is a danger that this miasma becomes an idiom sui generis – the medium becomes the message, as it were. Everyone’s talking in the right way, but no-one’s listening to the content. And if they are, they’re not understanding it, because often the speakers aren’t articulating their ideas well enough. A hierarchy emerges, premised purely on clarity or explanatory force – what mathematicians might call beauty.

Like some forms of ‘speculative’ maths, there is no longer a clear connection with an intuitive sense of logic, you begin judging the explanations on how well they cohere with the form of previous explanations. Are they internally consistent?

And boom, we’re back at the Round Window with Levi-Strauss. We are interpreting things through the most comfortable, familiar intellectual rubric we have, and layering our own ambitions over the top. Rock stars emerge and wall-eyed academics flock to them like bespectacled tweenies on a slushie high. I was one of them.

We do this all the time, with everything from art to science. In some fields it’s laughably transparent – modern literature comes to mind. Writers produce ‘speculative’ or ‘experimental’ works that are little more than minuscule, strategic moves intended exclusively for their peers and no-one else. Incidentally, you can always tell when this is happening because groupies emerge – they’re the litmus test for fashionable obscurity (or what Bourdieu would call cultural capital). Oh my God, I love Experimental Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 1950s! It really speaks to me (like a washing machine tumbling down a cliff). Unlike the ‘theorists’ described above who are actively engaged in thinking, even if it’s futile, the groupies don’t think anything at all. What they do recognise, however, is naked hierarchy and its association with class. They’re happy to participate on these grounds alone.

I’m not suggesting there is no value in engaging with these ideas, I just think it’s good to realise where their value ends. Recently I’ve been revisiting more ‘trad’ social theorists – Foucault and some of the newer incarnations of governmentality. As society and public discourse becomes ever more exotically farcical, it is to these ideas I find power and resistance.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.



500 words – New Zealanders in Australia

The Australian government’s recent crackdown on the residency of (not just) New Zealanders is gaining rather a lot of attention in the New Zealand media. Apparently, they ‘can’t just keep taking our rights away’.

I’m always amazed at the expectation that New Zealanders have immutable birth rights in Australia. New Zealanders are not actually Australians. So the only reason Australia would want to extend ‘rights’ to kiwis is is they get something in return. For almost all of the nineties and two thousands, what Australia got was an upwardly mobile, constant influx of well educated, mostly healthy adults of working age, who would pay tax but cost the government very little in return. To be clear, there are no shortage of ‘foreigners’ working in Australia who do this too.

New Zealand’s immigration requirements are much more relaxed than Australia’s however – after all, it is the cornerstone of their continued economic growth. As a consequence, New Zealand started being used as a stepping stone to get into Australia. The New Zealand government claims this is not the case, but it is. I could talk more about this but I won’t right now. It’s Occam’s Razor though – one in four kiwis who move to Australia originally came from outside NZ to begin with.

Most recently, this article talks about the introduction of international fees for New Zealanders. Below is a quote from a peevish student, who moved with his entire family to Australia as a teenager. He was considering his degree choices, but the new fees mean he’s now planning to move back to NZ,Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 7.02.55 AM

And that, right there, is why the New Zealand government is dragging its feet to assist New Zealanders in Australia – they want them back. Like the flow of people from the global south to the north, New Zealand is losing its working population. Nominally educated with at least a few of their own teeth, the New Zealand government is looking hard at its own large and unskilled population, as well as the high numbers of non-earners (young and old), and thinking; ‘By Hoki, we could really do with some of the flash ones back!’.

They can’t ‘pull’ them back with higher wages or working conditions, so all they’ve got left is the ‘push’ – Australia making it more and more uncomfortable for New Zealanders to stay in Australia.

The real losers out of this deal are the children, like Laurie, cited above. His parents moved him to Australia but made no attempt to obtain citizenship for Laurie, who would always be, even under the previous arrangements, the child of relatively temporary migrants. There aren’t many kids in this situation – children who are born in Australia to New Zealanders automatically gain citizenship when they turn ten, so really it’s just the kids who’ve moved there at some point during their childhood. It’s got to be pretty hard to move back to NZ when you’ve spent almost all your life in Australia.



(more than) 500 words – Gen-X ruminations

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Chris Cornell’s suicide made me think about a few Gen-X things, foremost of which was – why on earth did anyone ever think really greasy hair and a pervert triangle was attractive? But of course we did.

His suicide was a surprise, according to those that knew him, although this is the media interpretation so we will never really know. Suicide is so hot right now, it’s the epitome of a pathologised social disease, which is, of course, why it happens so much. I believe in clinical depression, certainly, but it’s pretty clear that many people who commit suicide aren’t clinically depressed. Their lives are, by some measure or another, fucked.

I think the expectation that we can live on nothing more than cardboard and chicken salt, while sitting on our dates being actively told we’re losers is a recipe for what one might call depression. Chuck into that pot a generation or two of children for whom any kind of parental love has been mediated through the state, childcare, endless ‘interventions’ that only serve to tell children how shit they are….it’s not bloody wonder people grow up feeling a bit shit.

Soundgarden emerged as part of the grunge movement – a reaction to the hyper-capitalism of the early 90s in which we were all informed that one was completely without value unless they were headed down the path of preppy investment banker or lawyer. The music of Nirvana, Soundgarden and all the rest was pretty potent reaction to the teenaged anomie at the time – the sense that we were nothing and would become nothing – little more than a drain on the state.

I think there’s something else people miss too, most succinctly put by a friend who worked for the Women’s Refuge. People accept the treatment they think they deserve, and those who grow up unloved fail to see when they are. I guess this is obvious, but it seemed so apposite and astute that it’s stuck with me ever since. I’ve known so many, many people, men and women, who simply cannot see when they are loved, because they don’t believe that it’s something ‘for them’ – it is for other people. They can give love, but expect none of it in return. They are often suspicious of and callous with the love they are given. I’m not even sure they mourn its absence.

I once listened to a very famous and accomplished chap talking about his lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He drank himself to death shortly after. He described his parents’ abusive – it was truly shocking – and of course he grew up thinking that he was nothing more than a hindrance of no value whatsoever. It struck me as quite shocking that someone so successful could think of himself in this way, but his successes never really cut through to him – it seems to me he had no sense that they were his.

I’ve often heard people say they’re no good, or they have no value – well I like to remind people to look at the social context they find themselves in. You might be on a zero hours contract (I am – on four of them!) while simultaneously being made to feel like a loser for not being ‘work ready’ or indeed, in any way suitable to for the world that we currently inhabit. It doesn’t help that the government heavily invests in stigmatising those who aren’t perfectly suited to the modern world as they define it. But here’s the thing – who is? The people we hold up as successful are usually tidy little psychopaths, and if they’re not they’re living lives that are as unfathomable to them as the rest of us. There are precious few people in this world who are ‘living at the centre of their own life’.

Those who are are, in my experience, extremely bright – they’ve got both the ability to pursue an interesting life regardless of their schooling and the imagination to think about what that might look like. For the rest of us, let’s go with a normal distribution and say that’s roughly 97.5% of humans, then your life chances rely heavily upon your schooling. And schooling relies heavily upon the quality of teaching as well as all the other factors that contribute to learning, such as home life, nutrition, sleep etc.,.

So yeah, the short version is, you probably are without value. Most people are – we are nothing more than a pack of meatsacks, wobbling around, waiting to turn up on instagram when we fall sideways out of a boat. There is nothing inherently special or precious about you. But equally, there is nothing inherently precious or special about anyone else you know – we’re all pretty much mediocre. The best we can do is be nice to one another. It might sound like perverse advice for the suicidal, but really, this is the nub of it. If you want to find happiness, try being somewhat self-sufficient. So far it’s the only thing I have encountered that enables people a modicum of pleasure, dignity and community.

Perhaps I might offer one other piece of advice for the unloved children out there. Western culture has given us the cult of unconditional love – the idea that being a child necessarily means you will be showered with love, regardless of the circumstances in which you came into the world. I can only blame the Christians for this, because for the rest of history, children’s treatment reflected their (diminished) circumstances. In fact, just the other day I read of a couple in the US who had adopted a daughter from a single mother who had three children already but had just lost her job. Too many mouths. Was that mother incapable of loving that last child? I don’t think so. Children have been abandoned throughout history, it’s only recently with the modern surplus of taurine flavoured bio-formula and plastic nappies that we’ve been able to sustain the newest members of our families. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kid to bits, but I’ve had the luxury of being able to love her, unfettered by the daily struggle to survive.

The social and demographic implications of abortion have been debated (contentiously – I’m looking at you Freakonomics) but the reality stands – this newish idea of unconditional love for your children is strongly correlated with access to effective contraception.

Children are loved, yes, they are, but the handwringing about their poor treatment woefully underestimates the impact of poverty and strain. Young women often have babies thinking that they will ‘be someone’ when they’re a mother – and they are, but it’s not much of a step up from being nothing at all if you do it poorly. And it’s hard to do it well when you’re skint and constantly reminded you’re a blight on society. I guess what I’d say is that it takes superhuman parents to treat you as the centre of their lives when their lives are a complete, impoverished shambles.

Incidentally, I’m always intrigued by the discussions about Finnish schooling. It’s so creative! And innovative! And teachers are so respected! This discussion is directed at Australia’s ever shrinking middle class, those who have some sense of buy-in to the education system, who actually think about how schooling might be made more effective for their kids. These parents are in the minority. Most parents are disengaged, they know there is no point in even thinking about ‘better outcomes’ for their children – they get what they get and they don’t get upset. Almost everyone who comments on social media about the ‘Finnish example’ could just about afford to send their kids to school in Finland.

That’s more than 500 words of rambling for today.