September 2015

Letter for September 2015

We have had some very nice but cool weather and some extremely wet and windy weather. It is definitely fall – some misty mornings and tree start to turn but not yet losing their leaves. The neighbour twins brought over a big bunch of lavender as they were pruning their bush. That gave us a nice smell in the house and still does although it is fading.

Harry did some of the concrete on the garage in the rain. The poor dog got too close to the cement dust going into the mixing and then got wet in the rain. She ended up with some stiff hair on her back.

A hawk visited our grass and catch some animal. It flew back and forth a couple of times and then left with what was left of the kill.

We had a good view of the eclipse on the 27, peaking at about 4:30am. The sky was very clear, all the village lights were out, I woke up at about the right time, about 3, to see the first shadow on the edge of the moon. Luckily I could see the moon from where I was in bed and could just open my eyes occasionally. When it was almost full, I woke Harry and we saw the full effect sitting on the edge of the bed and then went back to sleep.

There was sad news that Bob’s mother, Ciara’s granny died. Lena McIlwaine was 98 and failing so it was expected. We liked her a lot - nice lady.

This month’s offering includes: Work on the Garage; Slips of the tongue and the fingers; Prion-like diseases; Supper in a brothel; The Ig Noble Prizes; Law on Food Waste; Syria and the Refugee Problem. Enjoy.


Progress on garage

The saga continues – last month we had got our concrete mixer back and had prepared the formwork for the back pillar and set the steel beam in place and level – onward:

making concrete

Making concrete with Harry’s old measuring device.

placing concrete

Placing concrete in the formwork.

formwork for front pillar with beam across

Formwork and beam ready for placing concrete in the front pillar. It rained more or less though the process of making and placing this lot.

wooden caps up on the three steel beams

All three beams in place and the two pillars finished with wood caps on the beams to take the ceiling/roof.

scaffolding and gable

The bits needed were located and a scaffolding erected. And the gable was propped up against it for painting black.

gable painted black

Slips of the tongue and the fingers

In oral language there is a particular error that is common to all of us – we say one word when we are thinking a different word. The substitute word is almost always related to the intended word by:

  • being in the same category of meaning – both plants, both sports, both traits etc.
  • starting the same – starting with the same phoneme or syllable
  • having similar cadence – same number of syllables, same stress pattern
  • being the same part of speech – can be fit in without changing the syntax of the sentence.

This says something about how we pick our words and recall them from memory.

In typing and to a certain extent in written language in general, there is a type of error that just would not occur orally. Often the grammatical form of a word is changed by changing the ending of the word. The word that is wanted may be ‘drinker’ and instead it is typed as ‘drinking’. The fingers have formed their own habit and automatically end the word with the most common ending. I have trouble with typing ‘with’ when I mean to type ‘will’. This says something about how motor programs are selected and initiated.

Now that I am almost 76, I am starting to have those moments when a particular word just will not come. I know exactly what I want to say but cannot say it. I need the first sound and then it will come. I found that starting the sentence again avoiding that particular word was not a good idea. I had to find it if I wanted to have it next time. I had to force a new path to that word if the old one was gone. There is no way around it – find the word or lose it. I almost lost ‘trailer’ but I think I have managed to recover all the words that have become problems. But the problem gets more frequent in the last few years.

A completely different problem also has been raising its head with age. The symptoms of dyslexia are slowly coming back – I am finding it harder to read out loud. This has nothing to do with not being able to recall a particular word when talking – that was never a symptom of my dyslexia. I had no problem with oral language, just reading and spelling.

Prion-like diseases

Prion diseases and prion-like diseases are a problem because they are a new type of contagion that we are not used to combating. Sterilization by heat, filtering and many chemicals does not get rid of prions. It was recently pointed out that people may get prion-like diseases from surgical instruments but this has no been shown to have ever happened.

Besides the prion diseases (madcow, kuru, CJD) there are other diseases that are caused by prion-like agents (Alzheimers, Huntingtons, Parkinsons, frontotemporal dementia, ALS caused by beta amyloid, alpha synuclein, tau and SOD1 respectively). These are diseases of misfolded proteins that cause aggregates of the damaged protein. Researchers have been trying to find the reasons for the toxicity of the misfolded proteins and ways to stop the production of them. This has not been terribly successful.

These are diseases of the nervous system and the native (not misfolded) version of these proteins are found mostly in the nervous system. The question is whether the misfolded versions are toxic or are the native versions very important to the cells of the nervous system so that interferring with them is damaging, or of course both. The native versions occur in the cell membrane and face to the outside of the cell. Therefore their functioning would happen on the surface of the cell.

Various theories have been put forward about the functions of the native prion with some evidence but not conclusive evidence:

  • they protect cells from programmed death
  • they protect cells from oxidative stress (energy problems, inflammation etc.)
  • they regulate copper ion uptake
  • they recognize signals and transmit them to the inside of the cell
  • they are involved in growth and functioning of synapses
  • they are needed for cell adhesion

Some of this list are also found in a new discovery about Alzheimers. A fat called cardiolipin surrounds mitochondria (energy-producing organelles) and protects them from oxidative stress. During oxidative stress cardiolipin peroxides are formed and removed by a protein HSD10. If the cardiolipin peroxide is not removed, it initiates cell death or apoptosis. Beta amyloid, found in Alzheimers, binds HSD10 so that oxidative stress is not controlled and cell death can result. Rampant oxidative stress and uncontrolled cell death are hallmarks of Alzheimers and Parkinsons. Normally cardiolipin and apoptosis are beneficial and tissues but not if oxidative stress and lack of HSD10 coincide.

Supper in a brothel

I could not tell this story when Mom and Mel were alive. They came to visit us in England and we when on a trip with them, driving and camping, up to Norway and back. It was a little of a strain at times for all of us. For example, Mel would want Harry to stop so he could take a picture. Harry would say that he couldn’t stop on the Autobahn and he would exit at the next exit, and say that he could stop now. Mel would ask why we were on a little road and we would say it was because he wanted to take pictures. He would say to go back on the good road, so we would enter again at the next entry point. It took a few of these before Mel stopped asking to stop. But it was clear that he never believed that we could not stop to take picture on the Autobahn. There were many little things like this happening.

But one of the major problems was Mel’s stomach. Because of his ulcers and operations, he did not want to eat until he was hungry and when he was hungry he wanted to eat right away. I had sympathy for him but it was a problem. We would often be in a little bit of a panic, looking for a place to eat. Thus we ended up one evening on a dark street going into a place because it had a Coke sign. It was a bar, a long big bar with a couple of tables in a little alcove. We sat down and asked for the menu, ordered and had a good meal.

However, thankfully, Harry and I were sitting facing the bar and Mom and Mel had their backs to it. There was a lot of traffic. Down a flight of stairs behind the bar a girl would come down from time to time, drink with customers for a few minutes and then go back up stairs with one of the men at the bar. Men and girls kept going up and down the stairs. The place was doing a roaring trade in drinks and tricks but we were the only ones eating.

Harry and I exchanged a few glances but said nothing. We chatted, ate, paid and left, without Mom and Mel noticing. We never told them that they had eaten that meal in a brothel. But inside I had to smile at the idea of Mom and Mel eating in a busy brothel.

From the BBC - Here is the full list of Ig Nobel prize winners:

Chemistry - Callum Ormonde (University of Western Australia) and colleagues, for inventing a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg.

Physics - Patricia Yang (Georgia Institute of Technology, US) and colleagues, for testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds).

Literature - Mark Dingemanse (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, The Netherlands) and colleagues, for discovering that the word “huh?” (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language - and for not being quite sure why.

Management - Gennaro Bernile (Singapore Management University) and colleagues, for discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters (such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and wildfires) that - for them - had no dire personal consequences.

Economics - The Bangkok Metropolitan Police (Thailand) for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes.

Medicine - joint award: Hajime Kimata (Kimata Hajime Clinic, Japan) and also Jaroslava Durdiaková (Comenius University, Slovakia) and her collagues, for experiments to study the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities).

Image copyright AP Image caption Paper planes are traditionally hurled at the stage during the Ig Nobel ceremony

Mathematics - Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer (University of Vienna, Austria) for trying to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.

Biology - Bruno Grossi (University of Chile) and colleagues, for observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.

Diagnostic medicine - Diallah Karim (Stoke Mandeville Hospital, UK) and colleagues, for determining that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.

Physiology and entomology - Awarded jointly to two individuals: Justin Schmidt (Southwest Biological Institute, US) for painstakingly creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which rates the relative pain people feel when stung by various insects; and to Michael L. Smith (Cornell University, US), for carefully arranging for honey bees to sting him repeatedly on 25 different locations on his body, to learn which locations are the least painful (the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm). and which are the most painful (the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft).

Law on food waste

In a rare unanimous passage of a law, the French parliament has barred supermarkets from throwing good food. This is the result of charities being desperate for food and supermarkets removing just dated food from their shelves and binning it. Because the bins are raided by hungry people, the supermarkets had begun locking up their garbage or pouring bleach on it so that it is not edible. Now the supermarkets will have to sign contracts with charities to give them the outdated food in good condition. They will be not able to discard or destroy unsold food. It must go to charities or if it can’t go to charities it must go to animal feed. There is also an education program included in the law. The legislators referred to the epidemic of food waste while people can be struggling to eat.

This only tackles the tip of the iceberg of food waste. 7.1 million tons of food in wasted in France per year (67% by consumers, 15% by restaurants and 11% by stores). This is 20-30 kg per person, 7kg still in original wrapping. This about the same wastage is the UK per annual and lower than the US, the most prominent waster. The EU has promised to lower food wastage by 50% in the next 10 years. World wide 1/3 of food is not eaten.

France is also pushing for changes in labeling so that it does not encourage the discarding of food that is safe and in good condition. Many standards are unreasonable. It is not just food being wasted. Water, agricultural land and other inputs, transport, storage are being used to produce this wasted food. In landfill the waste produces greenhouse gases especially methane. The French supermarket Intermarche is also trying to market at lower prices ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables. These are perfectly good but misshapen specimens. The government is encouraging other supermarkets to follow this lead. The push to deal with the problem is definitely there – France may be the first but it will not be the last to start cutting food waste.

Syria and the refugee problem

The story is: There was a 5 year drought in Syria. A million rural people lost farms and moved to cities in the region. Daraa was very overcrowded by the farmers and short of water. The government was blamed for corruption in water rights. 15 teenagers painted a sign “the people want to topple the regime”, copying the slogans of the Arab Spring protests in other countries. They were arrested and tortured so their families and friends marched on the Governor’s house and were shot at. Riots spread through the city and to neighbouring cities, following the path of the drought. The problem of crowded, poverty stricken, water short cities was made worse by people fleeing Iraq where there were troubles between Kurds, Sunni and Shiites. The government reacted violently to any protest and people had the example of the Arab Spring to look to. Thus the riots turned to armed rebellion.

Peter H. Fickle, 2014: Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria. Wea. Climate Soc., 6, 331–340.

The devastating civil war that began in Syria in March 2011 is the result of complex interrelated factors. The focus of the conflict is regime change, but the triggers include a broad set of religious and sociopolitical factors, the erosion of the economic health of the country, a wave of political reform sweeping over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Levant region, and challenges associated with climate variability and change and the availability and use of freshwater. As described here, water and climatic conditions have played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria’s economic conditions. There is a long history of conflicts over water in these regions because of the natural water scarcity, the early development of irrigated agriculture, and complex religious and ethnic diversity. In recent years, there has been an increase in incidences of water-related violence around the world at the subnational level attributable to the role that water plays in development disputes and economic activities. Because conflicts are rarely, if ever, attributable to single causes, conflict analysis and concomitant efforts at reducing the risks of conflict must consider a multitude of complex relationships and contributing factors. This paper assesses the complicated connections between water and conflict in Syria, looks more broadly at future climate-related risks for water systems, and offers some water management strategies for reducing those risks.

The Independent

Climate change was a key driver of the Syrian uprising, according to research which warns that global warming is likely to unleash more wars in the coming decades, with Eastern Mediterranean countries such as Jordan and Lebanon particularly at risk.

Experts have long predicted that climate change will be a major source of conflict as drought and rising temperatures hurt agriculture, putting a further strain on resources in already unstable regimes.

But the Syria conflict is the first war that scientists have explicitly linked to climate change. Researchers say that global warming intensified the region’s worst-ever drought, pushing the country into civil war by destroying agriculture and forcing an exodus to cities already straining from poverty, an influx of refugees from war-torn Iraq next door and poor government, the report finds.

Added to all the other stressors, climate change helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict,” said report co-author Richard Seager, of Columbia University.

The conflict in Syria began in spring 2011 and has evolved into a complex multinational war that has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced millions more, according to the Columbia study, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was preceded by a record drought that ravaged Syria between 2006 and 2010.

Scientific American

Drying and drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011—the worst on record there—destroyed agriculture, causing many farm families to migrate to cities. The influx added to social stresses already created by refugees pouring in from the war in Iraq, explains Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who co-authored the study. The drought also pushed up food prices, aggravating poverty. “We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” Seager said. “We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”…

A number of research efforts in recent years have suggested that warmer temperatures and drought increase the risk of violent conflict around the world. A 2009 study found that over the past 30 years in sub-Saharan Africa, temperature rise correlated with an increase in the likelihood of civil war. A 2011 study implicated climate change in pushing up food prices in Egypt, fueling revolution there. …

The U.S. Defense Department is taking the warning seriously. It issued a report last November declaring climate change a “threat multiplier” that will impact national security.”

Climate change was the trigger but there were many other factors.

Sunni – Shiite conflict

The Sunni and Shia both view the other as heretics or as non-moslems. They are each concerned about the power of the other and this is always a source of tension (currently in Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq). Most Muslems are Sunni but there are concentrations of Shia in the Middle East: pockets in Afghanistan, Turkey, Yemen and Bahrain, plus a continuous band including Iran, southern Iraq, the coast of Syria and much of Lebanon. In Syria there was a Sunni majority dominated by a Shiite sect (the Alawite sect). There are a number of other religions in the country including Druse, Christians, Kurds and a number of small Islamic sects. The Syrian government considered Iran its closes ally. As soon as there were anti-government riots and revolt it quickly became also a sectarian struggle. Once it was a Sunni-Shiite fight, foreign countries secretly armed their favorite sides. It also started to have more than two sides.

Israel – Iran conflict

Ironically, although the Palestinians are staunch Sunnis and Christians, Hezbollah and Hamas get most of their aid from Iran via Syria and Lebanon. Hamas trained in Syria and its council in exile was in Syria. Israel, encouraged by Saudi Arabia, has influenced the US and Europe to insist that whatever settlement of the conflict was under discussion, it must not include the Assad family staying in power in any way – no power sharing. Israel has also sent bombing raids into Syria against Hezbollah movements of arms under cover of the war.

NATO/US – Russian conflict

The only Russian naval installation left in the Mediterranean is in the port of Tartus in Syria. Russia feels it requires a base of repair and supply in the Med. It was also planning a larger military base and has been Syria’s main weapon supplier. Russia has been diplomatically protecting Assad. Apparently, according to rumour, the State Department was horrified when it found out that Obama and Putin had been working out the plan to take poison gas weapons out of Syria so they could not be used by the government or any faction that could steal them. Russia has also been trying to further a plan to split Syria into a Alawite and non-Sunni part under Assad and the rest under who-ever. The fighting has brought a little bit of the old cold-war to the surface.

Rob Crilly New York on ‘anonymous sources story’ The Telegraph

Russia is building a military base in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s heartland, according to American intelligence officials, the clearest indication yet of deepening Russian support of the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The anonymous officials say Russia has set up an air traffic control tower and transported prefabricated housing units for up to 1000 personnel to an airfield serving the Syrian port city of Latakia. Russia has also requested the rights to fly over neighbouring countries with military cargo aircraft during September, according to the reports.

The claims, which will raise fears that Russia is planning to expand its role in the country’s civil war, will ratchet up tensions between Moscow and Washington over the future of Syria and its brutal ruler. Mr Obama on Friday met King Salman of Saudi Arabia to repeat their demand that any lasting settlement in Syria would require an end to the Assad regime.

It leaves the US and Russia implacably opposed in their visions for Syria.… Moscow increasingly justifies its support for the Assad regime by pointing to the rise of violent jihadists in Syria.

The ISIS campaign

The ISIS was born in the prison camps of Iraq during the American occupation. Ironically, those camps were the only place where jihadists could safely meet in numbers and discuss ideals and plans. It started as an Iraqi thing not a Syrian one. Syria was seen as low-hanging fruit to be a base for operations in Iraq. ISIS was originally supported by Saudi, Turkey and the Gulf states although in a smaller way than other Sunni fighting groups. Many of these groups joined IS and brought their money and weapons with them. Now ISIS has oil and many other means to support itself. It also makes deals with some of its enemies like the Assad regime itself. It is the center of a shifting unpredictable maze of deals and arrangements.


The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.

The establishment of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq and Syria occurred in four stages:

  1. Stage One (2004-2006) — The establishment of the branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and called “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia:” It waged a terrorist-guerilla war against the American and coalition forces and against the Shi’ite population. The first stage ended when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in an American targeted attack in June 2006.
  2. Stage Two (2006-2011) — Establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI): ISI served as an umbrella network for several jihadi organizations that continued waging a terrorist-guerilla campaign against the United States, its coalition allies and the Shi’ite population. ISI was weakened towards the end of the American presence in Iraq following successful American military moves and a wise foreign policy that supported the Sunni population and knew how to win their hearts and minds.
  3. Stage Three (2012-June 2014) — The strengthening of ISI and the founding of ISIS: After the American army withdrew from Iraq ISI became stronger. Following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war ISI established a branch in Syria called the Al-Nusra Front (“support front”). Dissension broke out between ISI and its Syrian branch, leading to a rift between ISI and Al-Qaeda and the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
  4. Stage Four (as of June 2014) — Dramatic ISIS military achievements: The most prominent was the takeover of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. At the same time ISIS established its control in eastern Syria where it set up a governmental center (its “capital city”) in Al-Raqqah. In the wake of its success, ISIS declared the establishment of an “Islamic State” (IS) (or “Islamic Caliphate”) headed by an ISIS leader named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In September 2014 the United States declared a comprehensive campaign against ISIS, which is currently waging a fierce struggle against its many enemies both at home and abroad.

Turkey – Kurd conflicts

Turkey is more interested in controlling the Kurds than in worrying about Syria. They are having trouble deciding exactly what is in their best interests. Most of the money and weapons going to Sunni groups went through Turkey. They will do almost anything for any side if it means that the Kurdish fighters suffer.

Now the refugees

Syria has a population of about 23 million and currently 7.6 million are displaced internally within Syria and about 4 million have fled the country. Over half of the moving masses of Syrians are children. This is the largest displacement of people in our time. But there are currently other movements of refugees in Africa, South Asia and Central America. There has never been so many desperate people walking or taking overcrowded boats to ‘safety’.

The Syrian refugees first sanctuary was Jordan which now has 1.4 million in camps, next was Lebanon which took in 1.2 million and Turkey which houses 2.1 million (none of these in Turkey have been given permanent status). All these countries have borders with Syria that cannot be easily closed. Countries further away have taken several 100 thousand: Iraq 250 thousand, Egypt 135 thousand, Germany had taken 105 thousand as of March but has many more now, Sweden and Algeria have taken quite a few. Other countries have taken numbers in the low thousands or less.

There are, however, refugees on the move through Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Austria in large numbers. Many more are expected. Italy also has a crisis with refugees (and migrants) from Africa.

We had been warned. Ever since the ’70s we have been told that people will be on the move from climate change and the following famines and wars.

But on the other hand it is not that big a problem now. First this is a mixed population. Mixed religions, levels of education, and sources of money. Most are healthy young families and that is not bad. Much of Europe has slowly falling populations. If they were spread evenly about, Europe as a whole could absorb 10 million refugees and only have a 2 percent increase in population. And with that an improvement in the ratio of young working people to old retired people. The absolute panic (of some people, some countries and some media) is disproportionate.

Of course it is not reasonable to have Greece and Italy shoulder so much of the load in Europe. Further, if we do not cut back on wars and global climate change we are going to have a lot of future refugee problems. Think about how many people live on the ocean’s edge and will have their homes under water. Think of all the places were agriculture will have to change drastically. Think of all the disputes about water sharing. Walls and fences are useless in the long term. We made the problem in many ways and we are going to have to except our part in the causes. We should accept the problem and try to reduce the impact and not listen to nationalist demagogues.


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About Janet Kwasniak

Retired pensioner, raised in Canada but UK citizen living in France, interested in Science and many other things.

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