Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bill Gates is my homeboy

Welcome to the modern world, where the successful alpha males are computer nerds who always look a bit like they had to walk through a wind-tunnel to get to wherever they are.
If I was a smart female, I would have glommed onto someone like Bill, rather than the football loving, beer drinking Chewbacca I wound up with. (Hi, dear!)

I have a grudging appreciation of Bill Gates though, mostly because he contributes more financially to global health than the entire budget of the WHO (true!), and he used his geek laser-vision to actually cut through all the highly politicised health issues that generally take up funding, in favour of funding health interventions for the major global killers, such as malaria and TB.

He has also recently pointed out that:
spending by rich countries aimed at combating climate change in developing nations could mean a dangerous cut in aid for health issues.
Rich nations at the Copenhagen summit pledged to funnel US $100 Billion to developing nations per year by 2020 to combat climate change.
Gates said that amount represents more than three quarters of foreign aid currently given by the richest countries per year.
"I am concerned that some of this money will come from reducing other categories of foreign aid, especially health," Gates wrote in a letter, released late on Sunday, describing the work of his foundation.
"If just 1 percent of the $100 billion goal came from vaccine funding, then 700,000 more children could die from preventable diseases," Gates added.
Taking the focus away from health aid could be bad for the environment in the long run, said Gates, "because improvements in health, including voluntary family planning, lead people to have smaller families, which in turn reduces the strain on the environment."

Source can be found here.

Saibai under water, but not due to sea level rise.

Saibai Island is one of our northernmost islands in the Torres Strait, its a low lying mud-flat island closer to New Guinea than the Australian mainland. When Australia relinquished it's administration of Papua New Guinea, the inhabitants of Saibai were given the choice of which country they would like to be a part of, and rather unaminously voted to be a part of Australia.

Saibai has been recently inundated by king tides, which naturally is being attributed to rising sea levels due to climate change. Theres just a couple of problems with this:

  • The other is that this has happened to Saibai before. King tides happen yearly, and in the 1940's a combination of king tides and storm surges inundated Saibai and contaminated the water supply, forcing many of the islanders to relocate to mainland Australia. Hence the Cape York communities of Bamaga and Seisia, which are ethnically Torres Strait Islander, rather than Aboriginal.

Saibai suddenly being inundated tends to be a combination of factors, including annual king tides, heavy rainfall and strong winds, for example from cyclones and strong tropical low pressure systems. To have a look at the current cyclone season, look here. If you looking at this at the time of posting, you can see tropical cyclone Olga has been busy dumping rain on most of far north Queensland and the cape, and she is currently reforming in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Saibai had the misfortune of having this storm activity accompany the annual king tides.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in action...

This one took a little bit of time to get my head around the convoluted logic, so bear with me on this.

Australia is being heralded as coming up with an alternative way to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions via paying indigenous Australians to practice traditional fire management practices. (Controlled burn-offs at particular locations and times of year, which then prevent out of control late-season fires.)
Traditional Owners from West Arnhem have agreed to generate 100,000 tonnes of carbon credits annually through traditional fire management employing Indigenous Rangers, to offset greenhouse gas emissions from ConocoPhillips' liquefied natural gas plant in Darwin Harbour.
For its part, ConocoPhillips agreed to pay A$1 million per year into the project over 17 years. The offsets will be recognised under the proposed Australian Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
Building on the WALFA pilot, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA) has raised $7.8 million from the Australian government towards $30 million required to develop and administer four additional projects using Indigenous land managers with the goal of creating over 1 million tonnes of carbon credits annually.

According to UN under-secretary general Konrad Osterwalder:
"This experience is the best example in the world of indigenous and local communities using the emerging carbon market to develop culturally appropriate livelihoods. The lessons learnt from this experience are invaluable, especially now that there are billions of dollars available to local communities worldwide to help them take climate change mitigation and adaptation measures."

Im somewhat speechless. How does this even work as an offset? Why are we paying people millions of dollars to do a sensible thing that they have always done, and then say its a carbon credit, because if they didn't do what they had always done then there would be more fire, so by making fire, they are reducing it. Im sorry, what?

At the risk of sounding like my grandfather, if something isn't sustainably producing an income, then it ain't a good investment. Wheres the actual income production here? This is trading in make-believe. Traditional fire management was done for a variety of reasons, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't to offset white-fella carbon emissions. If you don't follow through on the action, it negates the purpose of doing it in the first place.

Wouldn't it be better to let indigenous people "develop culturally appropriate livelihoods" by giving them their land and letting them actually use it? Maybe then they could continue traditional practices alongside a shiny new $30 million fish farm, fruit tree plantation or even, stay with me on this, a shiny new liquid gas plant of their own.

As opposed to this bullshit, which seems to be some feel-good, white-fella circle jerk. Even the department of environment notes that:
Ultimately burning gave people control of the landscape, whereby they would not be surprised by unplanned fire and could do particular burning activities as a matter of choice. They were in charge and burning probably came to symbolise being in control.

Wheres the choice here? Wheres the control? This is turning aboriginality into an industry for, well, industry.

For a recent article on a related subject, Noel Pearson has alot to say on the topic here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Well, f...k me dead and bury me pregnant...

The unthinkable has happened. The ABC newsbreakfast show on ABC2, famed for biased reporting and rude on-air gestures at climate-skeptic politicians when they think they're not looking, just attempted to ask some "difficult" questions of a leading proponent of AGW.

Presenter Joe O'Brien interviewed Clem Davis this morning, convener of the upcoming AMOS conference in Canberra (read: warmist junket). Clem Davis, who is more accustomed to presenting his backside to the ABC for the kissing thereof, actually found himself being asked about such matters as the IPCC glacier swindle, Lord Monckton, the fact we have been in a cooling trend for a decade or so, and the mainstream media bias in reporting climate change. I can't work out which is more unprecedented, the ABC showing a bizarre amount of balance, or the suprise on Clem Davis' face.

Clem Davis refused to answer any of the difficult questions put to him, citing that it's not his area of expertise to answer such things. Given that he is a meteorologist, to my mind this is tantamount to pleading the fifth. (If he was in court and this was another country. Whatever.)

No matter, though, just the fact the presenter asked the questions in the first place is indicative of the shifting tides of public opinion.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Doctors for the what now?

I onced blogged about the inane self-conceit of organisations that have the appelation of "Doctors for..." in the title. It was called "Strippers for industrialisation, and other types of stupid" and still garners alot of misdirected google traffic. (Suckers).

So far, along with my favourite lumps of ca-ca to kick over at Doctors for the Environment (nope, still won't link them), I have found Doctors for Native Forests (they have the ENTIRE text of Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax" on their site), Doctors for Global Health (which makes sense for a change), Clown Doctors for Kids (acceptable), Doctors for Disaster Preparedness (OK), Doctors for Human Rights (meh) and Doctors for Life (Eew. I'm not even going there...)

But wait, whats this? Enter: Doctors for a Sustainable Population. Somewhere in the back of my head I started hearing that music that always played when Darth Vader entered the room. Then I noticed that they used to be called "Medical Association for Planetary Survival" (Why would you change that?)

I'll also give you a dollar and a big sloppy kiss if you can guess who they list as their "associated organisations". Oh, alright, I'll tell you. Its Sustainable Population Australia and, yep, pucker up, Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Doctors for a Sustainable Population are, interestingly, not too worked up about climate change, but are pretty freaked by peak oil. Unfortunately, they think they are just the guys to solve the problem, only because they are doctors, they think what they need to do is implement:

sustainable population targets by family planning and population reduction in the most socially acceptable way.
First, define which is the most socially acceptable way to enforce a reduction in population? I would be interested to hear it. And why is this a doctor's job, anyway? They say:

DSP believes that doctors, a relatively large group trained in science, are the most likely to realise the danger to the future to us and our descendants, and to be effective in explaining this to society.

Wow, this type of thing could never get out of hand, could it?

Also, referring to doctors as trained in science is kind of cute, because I can tell you this for free: The degree I'm studying does NOT give any training in the key basis of the methodology that is science. We are being trained as technicians. Its vocational training of a fairly ad hoc nature. Scientific methodology is assumed knowledge because once upon a time it had already been acquired by this stage. These days, though, you can even get through a PhD without ever having to comes to terms with the P for Philosophy. As a second-generation scientist, I was somewhat appalled to discover that most of my peers actually confuse science with a belief system, and wouldn't notice an Aristotelian logical fallacy if it put on a fruity hat and did the macarena.

Why do these types of people immediately jump to the conclusion that we have to MAKE people have less children? Clearly they have never had a 10 pound incontinence-making device exit a sensitive area of their anatomy. Most of the evidence from the developed world would indicate that if you give women access to birth-control and the choice between buying shoes and having so many children their uteri fall out, they tend to go with 1.8 offspring* and the sexy, faux-leather strappy numbers that show off some toe-cleavage.**

* Yes, thats right. Australia's total fertility rate has been below replacement level since 1976, hence immigration. Even developed Catholic countries like Spain have very low fertility rates. Spain's is lower than Australia's at around 1.3. Italy's is around the same as Spain's, probably because of all those fabulous shoes.
** I actually loathe shoe-shopping. The whole retail industry seems to be full of terrible, ill fitting shoes, and the only ones I like either never have my size, or are only available in white (white!) or cost in excess of $300 (which should be illegal). I was merely trying to make a point. Insert favoured retail item of your choice. e.g. an education or a new set of Makita power drills.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Harden the f#@& up!

Lately I have been thinking about shifting tides in global psychiatry. For instance the Americanisation of mental illness is becoming increasingly evident, as is the overwhelming propensity for people to pathologise everything that is not neurotypical. Indeed, there is also a growing temptation to diagnose away bad behaviour, or attempt to find some reason why people might just be A-holes. Look at Tiger Woods, after being busted repeatedly burying his iron in the rough, does he man-up and acknowledge that hes a guy-whore with more money than sense? Does he hell...he books himself into rehab for his "sex addiction".

Now other poor sods are finding that after the demise of the Hope and Change Hoe-Down in Copenhagen, their impending demise is making them, well, a bit teary:

Brought to the brink by climate change
Mardi Tindal, the newly elected moderator of the United Church of Canada, returned from last month's climate change summit in Copenhagen with a deep malaise. Not a true clinical depression, but an anxious despair that reduced her to weeping.
"The difference between depression and what I was experiencing is that I wasn't suppressing or finding myself in a place of isolation," she said in an interview about her "lament," and how it helped her to see "the truth about the condition of my own soul."
She was so disappointed by the meeting's failure to reach a binding deal that she broke down in the car one day as her husband drove toward their home church in Brantford, Ont.

The article then trots out a U.K. psychiatrist, Lisa Page:
Dr. Page cites "preliminary evidence" of more extreme possibilities: that suicide increases above a certain temperature threshold; that schizophrenia increases as populations become more urban; and that "impulsivity and aggression could be triggered during periods of hot weather."

One minute we're talking about someone having a bit of a cry, and the next its suicide and schizophrenia?! I certainly hope Dr. Page has to defend those findings, because we already know that linking suicide with temperature is a rather tenuous association, and that in fact suicides rates tend to be highest in northern Europe. The top five countries for suicide according to the WHO are:
1. Lithuania.
2. Belarus.
3. Russia.
4. Kazakhstan.
5. Hungary.

Which would indicate to me that this might have just as much to do with a socio-politico-economic climate than a meteorological one.

Presumably, Dr. Page is referring to a recent article that examined suicide data from Italy over the last few decades and came to a rather zig-zaggy conclusion that Italian men were more likely to suicide when it was warmer. (But not Italian women. Go figure.) The authors themselves even note that:

It is worth mentioning the somehow speculative character of our interpretation of results, to be weighted against other possible contributing mechanisms
Really? You think?

Swiss researchers also set out to look at the relationship of seasonality to suicide, thinking that they would find evidence supporting the classical hypothesis that suicides peak when its warmer. Probably because they didn't think to hook this study up to climate change, they discoverered something completely different instead:
To summarize, the results show unexpected associations between monthly suicide and temperature data. Contrary to overall seasonality, the associations based on monthly residuals emerge mainly during the winter months. In analogy to the overall seasonality, suicides that are performed outdoors appear to play again a major role. The results suggest that temperature and similar meteorologic variables contribute little to our understanding of the overall seasonality in suicide, even though the meteorologic variables are involved indirectly in various ways.

Translation: Instead of finding that suicides are higher when its warmer, they discovered that most suicides correspond with winter, with a secondary peak during summer when people are more likely to suicide in the great outdoors.

We also know already that rates of schizophrenia are higher in people who are born in winter in climates with low levels of winter sunlight exposure. The most striking epidemiology came from the high level of schizophrenia in second generation Afro-Carribean migrants to the United Kingdom. Schizophrenia has thus been linked with a low level of maternal vitamin D during the third trimester. (To joint the long list of other diseases that seem to be linked with inadequate vitamin D levels: Heart disease, diabetes, cognitive impairment, cancer...theres more, but I have a short attention span and got bored listing them.)

If I met an individual in person who was feeling really down about the fact we are all going to die of climate by tuesday because Copenhagen went bosoms up, I would be very sympathetic to them. I'm not a bitch or anything. You can't go around making judgements about other peoples feelings. Feelings are personal and trying to negate someone else's is futility on the level of pushing manure up a hill with a pointy stick. However, on a population level, I would like to request that everyone feeling climate angst of this nature watch this delightfully educational clip (warning: Very foul language included. Don't watch if you are F-word phobic):

Monday, January 18, 2010

The weekly vector-borne WTF?

How could the "international peer-reviewed journal" called Global Health Action have escaped my notice for so long? (I like that they use the word ACTION, but they had me at "Global", anyway). Their home page is decorated with pictures of mosquitoes and polar bears, so I instantly knew I was on the right track.

Just recently they published an Australian article: Climate change could threaten blood supply by altering the distribution of vector-borne disease: an Australian case-study, (available here) which is basically concerned with the fact that during a recent dengue outbreak in far north Queensland, regional blood supplies ran low due to transfusion service bans on collecting from people who were in, or had been to, the dengue prone area.

I've discussed before this the many reasons why climate change is not linked to an increase in vector-borne diseases so much as public health is. You can find stuff on the topic here, here and here. No need to rehash. So on to a discussion of dengue in Australia.

The main dengue vector, Aedes aegypti is apparently an introduced species to Australia, but has been here long enough that it's probably not useful drawing the distinction, except to point out that its highly likely they haven't reached the limit of their possible distribution across the country. There are other mozzies that can be dengue vectors in Australia, but the thing about Ae. aegypti, is that its an urban mozzie. According to the UNSW mosquito nerds:

It is assumed that Ae. aegypti is the vector of greatest concern because of its distribution and close association with humans. Ae. aegypti is predominantly a day-biting mosquito whose larvae may be found almost exclusively in clean water in man-made containers such as water-barrels, rainwater tanks, wells, vases, tyres, bottles, tins, and most other water-holding containers found in the domestic environment. Although the species is currently restricted to Queensland, there are past records of Ae. aegypti being found in NSW, the NT and WA.

Interestingly, the UNSW crew also note that:
Ae. albopictus, poses a threat to Australia. It is an important vector that has been introduced from Asia to many countries, as eggs or larvae transported in artificial container habitats such as used motor vehicle tyres, and water barrels on ships. If it was introduced to Australia it is likely it could readily establish and present a threat for dengue transmission.

This cute little stripey bugger was made famous (if you hang out in the right cirlces and don't get out much) by turning up unannounced many years ago in Houston in the USA, after hitchiking from Asia in used car tyres or such. A past-time that is distinctly unrelated to climate change. (If we wind up with ae. albopictus immigrating from Asia, we can console ourselves with the fact that we have already shipped red-back spiders to Japan).

The fact that Ae. albopictus made its way all the way from Asia to the US would make it seem likely it could handle the little tootle across from New Guinea (where it is already) to the Torres Strait. Especially considering our northernmost island of Saibai is something like, 4 or 5 km away from the New Guinea mainland. Oh, wait, too late. Given that it is native to territory as far north as Beijing, there is no reason why it needs the help of global warming to colonise our southern states.

I'm thinking that when it comes to the spread of dengue vectors in this country, climate change is the least worrying possibility. We've got more immediate problems when it comes to vector borne disease knocking on our doors.

A part of the premise of this article is vaguely sound. Yes, I agree, more dengue outbreaks would put a strain on regional blood supplies. They could have written the whole article on this topic, and just omitted all the bits about extrapolating poorly considered "climate change scenarios". Although admittedly that would have buggered up their conclusion a bit, which was:
Unless there is strong intergovernmental action on greenhouse gas reduction, there could be an eight-fold increase in the number of people living in dengue prone regions in Australia by the end of the century.

I think a far better conclusion would be to go away and remember exactly how we went about eradicating dengue from mainland Australia by the 1950's, and which holes in the public health system lined up to allow it to come back in the 1980's.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A paediatrician who needs to be spanked. Do it for the children.

I have often blogged about the fact of my incidental motherhood. Recently one of my skeptic-spawn has come down with what I am convinced is a bout of giardiasis, sans diarrhea. We just spent christmas in my childhood home in the tropics where the little blobby parasites in question are endemic, and it has been going around the local paediatric population. The only problem is, my dear little infected sproglet doesn't have diarrhea, just all the upper abdominal symptoms, and the local general practice population here in more temperate climes seem pig-ignorant of what a protozoan hoe-down actually looks like clinically. I tried to explain to them that giardiasis often present without diarrhea. Then in desperation I even explained that many other children my kid had been playing with have presented with the tell-tale diarrhea (actually, the way it was relayed to me was that a certain child "vomited mayonnaise out of his arse".)

The fact that some people only get upper abdominal symptoms with giardia infection isn't exactly new, I have a prehistoric parisitology textbook from the 1950s that even makes note of it, and that matches my own clinical and personal experience. After doing a rather puzzled internet search, I uncovered an amazing thing: There is something like 30 giardia fact sheets from around the world that have exactly, and I mean verbatim, the same true, but clinically misleading information on them. The CDC and the New South Wales health department among them. Whereas my ancient parisitology textbook was written by a boffin who based his information purely on what he saw himself down a microscope and in the people who he presumably chased for stool samples.

We are becoming a profession of gullible rubes. Its so easy to go and google something that nobody stops to think about what they actually see in front of them. Or what that crotchety old GP spent fifty years seeing in front of him, and then told you about. I'll admit tropical medicine is my schtick, I wouldn't know a chillblain if I found one on my arse, but I found it disturbing that if you got all of the GPs together that I have had to see in the last week, you would probably get one knowledgable doctor in the aggregate.

So I'm sitting here nursing a good head of hate for other peoples' willfull ignorance, when all of a sudden I come across a JAMA article called "Cimate Change Puts Children In Jeopardy" by Rebecca Voelker. Yawn. Whatever. Heard it all before. I must have been feeling masochistic, though, 'cause I kept reading. Mostly it was all the same tired old crap about how children are going to be hurt most by climate because they are the future. Or the future was going to hurt them because of the climate. Something like that. Then I see this:
When pediatrician Aaron Bernstein, MD, sees young patients with Lyme disease at Children’s Hospital Boston, in Massachusetts, his advice to parents often goes beyond the obvious of protecting their children against infectious ticks with insect repellant, long pants, and long sleeves on trips to the woods.
I think I knew where this was going, and I didn't like it. I had to read all the way to the end of the article, past the bit where they recommend saving the children by replacing wholesome incandescent bulbs with toxic mercury bombs, to get the second bit of the Lyme disease story.
Back in Boston, Bernstein makes an effort to give his patients’ parents a quick rundown on how such vectorborne illnesses as Lyme disease that make their children sick are linked with climate change and its influence on ecosystems.

Oh. Sweet. Lord. Of. Crap. Fire this man immediately. IMMEDIATELY!!!!! At the very least make him do some remedial undergraduate pre-med biology classes. Or medical ethics. Or maybe we could explain to HIM, with his kids present, how his children are all doomed and its all his fault.

How does he even vaguely think this is going to help the parents of a child who has FRICKIN' LYME DISEASE?!!! This man obviously cares about his patients above and beyond the call of duty, does he also espouse paediatric bubble-wrapping? Microchipping? (Actually, I have considered microchipping my children, but thats different.)

OK. Breathe, Paua. Breathe. Think of a happy place. You're on a beach somewhere. A polynesian David Thewlis has just shown up with a jug of mojitos...

Its going to be alright...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don't get them wet, they multiply

Following on from my last post about Irukandji syndrome from a tiny jellyfish, which I naively thought was one of my rare "non-AGW" posts, I predictably found this execrable piece of bad-science merde in the Cairns Post (which explains its publication, but doesn't pardon it), where "researchers" (I use the term loosely) are now claiming that Irukandji jellyfish are increasing in numbers due to, you guessed it, climate change. Sigh. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water:
James Cook University researchers have gathered historical data from reports of irukandji stings occurring in the Cairns region during the past 60 years and concluded the season has grown from two months every year in the 1950s to a current season that lasts six months.
I'm sorry, what was that you just said? The last sixty years? They didn't even find a jellyfish responsible until the early 1960s, so exactly how are you assessing historical reports from the 1950s?

A north Queensland doctor named Jack Barnes was the first to discover the causative organism and then describe it in the landmark, and rather bizarre, 1964 MJA article "Cause and Effect of Irukandji Stingings". The intrepid doc spent countless hours looking for a likely offender, and then when he thought he might have a suspect, eschewed testing it on animal models in favour of testing it on himself. When that subsequently hurt a bit, he tested it on a male lifeguard and his own 9 year old son. They all wound up in hospital and in honour of his efforts, the jellyfish he had found was named Carukia barnesi in his honour. (Which to my mind stands as a fine example of the Australian penchant for taking the piss.)

Prior to this stellar proof that "they don't make science like they used to", there was such a thing as Irukandji Syndrome that had been recognised in divers and waders in northern Australian waters. However, extrapolating from suspected case reports is problematic even to this day, as there is often diagnostic confusion between decompression sickness (the bends) and myocardial infarcts (good ol' fashion heart attack). The first reported case of a diver even remembering SEEING a jellyfish around the time they got sick was in 1997, and often the onset of the symptoms follows sometime after when exposure is thought to have occurred.

Couple all this with the fact that we know almost nothing about the jellyfish ecology, or even how many species worldwide are capable of producing an Irukandji syndrome. Oh, and the fact that reef water temperatures aren't as far removed from the average as hysterics would have you believe, AND the fact that the human population of the state has increased almost threefold since 1961.

I'm thinking they shouldn't be so quick to extrapolate the population size of a species with a virtually unknown ecology from the number of presumed case presentations. I would say its far more likely that any trend you're looking at relates more to 1) the growing popularity of scuba diving and snorkelling as a recreational past-time and 2) cheap air travel resulting in swimming in stinger season contrary to all common sense because you're "on holiday".

I would also question how they even accessed historical medical records? Theres alot of Australian hospitals that are only making the move to digital records in the last year or so, and old hospital paper records don't get kept that long. The last time I had to find some personal records, and this is just from the eighties, they literally sent some bloke out to check the garden shed and then got back on the line to report that unfortunately they had been "archived" (with extreme prejudice), i.e. in a furnace.

Even in 2006 doctors were writing to the Editor of QJM to say:
We know little about the lifecycle of these jellyfish, and currently there is no antivenom. We hope that the recognition that Irukandji syndrome is due to many jellyfish worldwide, will spur further research into identifying the ecology of the jellyfish and the venom components responsible, and hopefully produce an effective treatment.

Its kind of amazing that one of the "researchers" involved in this study is a PhD candidate. Sigh. They really don't make science like they used to.

Monday, January 11, 2010

And from the "True to God" department...

This has nothing to do with anthropogenic climate change or the lack thereof. This is just plain freaky. A man has been stung by a thimble-sized Irukandji jellyfish 25 metres above the ocean while fishing from a bulk carrier, and needed to be airlifted back to the mainland for treatment. The resuce helicopter paramedics took awhile to work it out, but put together his symptoms and signs with the fact he reported getting sprayed with water while fishing off the deck of the cargo ship, and decided it must have been an Irukandji sting.

Australians are born with the knowledge that there is an all-pervading tacit agreement amongst the populace to maintain certain globally held beliefs about our country, for example: We all rode to school on kangaroos (this one is not negotiable, even first generation Vietnamese-Australians and Sudanese refugees know not to cock this one up when talking to foreigners), and any variation on the theme of "everything is poisonous and will kill you".

So there you go, Irukandji are tiny, translucent and essentially invisible, they are enormously venomous, hurt like a bastard and can make your blood-pressure do tumbleturns anywhere between 40 and 200+ mmHg. Thats when they're not killing you. And now THEY CAN FLY.

If this doesn't freak you out, then consider the young girl in Point Lonsdale who yesterday took home some shells from the beach and was cleaning them in the bathtub, only to have a blue-ringed octopus fall out. This one even freaks me out. Blue-ringed octopi are quite literally deadly, and they're tiny, and just to really scare the crap out of everyone, don't even display their distinctive blue rings until you piss them off.

Welcome to Australia. Its hotter than hell and everything is poisonous and will kill you, but at least we're good at sport.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Strewth, mate.

Its quite hot today where I happen to be visiting. Around 44 degrees celsius (note the bit on the screen dump above that says "feels like 47C"). Thats not unusual for this time of year. It happens. I don't even have airconditioning where I am, so I have the kids sitting in front of a makeshift Coolgardie safe constructed from a fan and a laundry rack covered in wet towels. Its not too bad inside the house, because I closed it up this morning when I knew there was a scorcher coming. I'll open the windows again later when the inevitable cool change comes from the south and antarctica.

The reason I'm reporting on this is because this is normal for this part of the world, and yet if a bushfire breaks out, which has happened not infrequently in the past, all of a sudden people start screaming about climate change. Note the next screen grab that shows the highest recorded temperature for january in this region was in 1939, the same year as the Black Friday bushfires.

I call it living in Australia.

Artist more confused than hermaphrodite polar bear

In my internet ramblings I somehow found the Cape Farewell mob, who appear to sell carbon credits to suckers and then use the proceeds (and donations, of course) to take artists and "scientists" on "expeditions" to such ecologically perishable places as the arctic and the Andes. Presumably for purposes of inspiration. They looked kind of familiar, then I worked out they are the people who took intrepid freeloader Alex Hartley to the arctic, where he immediately "discovered" a lump of rock, christened it "Nowhere Island" and then promptly stole it.

From their trips to the arctic they produced a travelling expedition called "The art and climate change exhibition", which has the rather odd inclusion of a painting called "Hermaphrodite Polar Bear":

A few things immediately leap to mind, one of which is exactly how he managed to gain that unique perspective of a polar bears nether regions, and the other is how pseudohermaphroditism in polar bears has a relation to climate change? Last time I checked we were all getting freaked out by endocrine disruptors condensing over the poles then concentrating up the food chain. We can't decide on exactly which endocrine disrupting chemical pollutant is the big nasty (it depends on whats trendy in the research community at a given time)and don't exactly have comparative data going back very far, but no matter! Either way I'm pretty sure that only the truly die-hard hysterics have somehow tried to pin this on climate change.

See what happens when you invite artists to comment on science? Give me Damien Hirst, any day. If you could just ignore the ginormously obscene pricetags for a second, you could at least be impressed by the fact he managed to get a whole tiger shark into a perspex tank.

So an Irishman walks into a salt mine and...

Many years ago, while I was studying my second undergraduate degree and generally mispending my youth, I shared a house with two guys from Cork and another from Donnegal. To this day I can still remember how to score pot in Irish Gaelic (although in a fit of Clinton-esque arse-coverage I would like to officially state that "I didn't inhale") and exactly why the name of Irish band "The Pogues" is funny. (It was reportedly meant to be The Pogue Mahones, but they shortened it.)

I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this, except that the climate weather snow has hit Ireland hard, with the government ordering Irish embassy staff in Europe to get chummy with any industry contacts they have to source rock salt and grit, which they are desperately low on. (And no, unfortunately I don't know the Irish for "can you score me a tanker of salt").

This approach actually worked, and they have cut a deal for 25, 000 tons of salt with Poland. A nation that obviously has a soft spot for Ireland after Irish traffic cops inadvertently let Polish drivers in Ireland rack up fines under the singular identity of someone called Prawo Jazdy, or "Drivers Licence" as he prefers to be called at home.

In some areas they have sent the army in to help, and hospitals are also feeling the strain:
Hospitals across the country remained busy, with many reporting a 70% increase in the number of patients presenting themselves at accident and emergency units with fractures requiring treatment. Emergency medicine consultants are reporting that a high percentage of these fractures are complex and require surgery. Doctors in Cork reported treating 1,000 fractures since the cold snap began.
The population of county Cork is only 480, 000. To put this into some kind of perspective, every year approx. 1% of the Australian population suffers injury from a fall. Of that 1%, 15% of those people sustained a fracture as a result of the fall. Thats over the course of a year. Now, its late at night and I get a little innumerate after a hot day and a couple of beers, but I just worked out that gives us a rate of around 32,061 people suffering fall-related fractures a year. Thats like 1 in 666 (gotta love that number) of the entire population of Australia. The population of Cork had about 1 in 480 of its population fractured in a matter of weeks. Ouch.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Urban campers beware

From what I gather, the northern hemisphere is really freakin' cold at the moment. Which is why I found it somewhat surreal to read a journal article from 2009 entitled "Health of the homeless and climate change" proudly published in the Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 86, No. 4.

The authors (who are from Toronto, Canada - which makes me think they must not look outside their windows very often) cast around for a highly vulnerable population, and presumably because ethnic migrants, indigenous Canadians, GLBTQ and disabled feminists were already taken, hit upon the homeless to champion against global warming. They actually seemed quite excited that no-one else had quantified the effects of climate change on the homeless. Ground floor score!

Not ones to mess around, they focused on four main areas of concern:

1. Increased heat waves. (Of course. Howhever, whats fantastic is how they cite the urban heat island effect to posit that MORE people are going to die in cities due to global warming. What, you can't have an urban heat island effect when analysing surface station temperature measurements, but you can have one when calculating the death toll? Double standards much.)

2. Increased air pollution. (This bit has to be read to be believed, I mean increased surface ozone? Seriously? Pick me some cherries while you're out on that limb.)

3. Increased severity of floods and storms. (They used Hurricane Katrina as a case study. High five for bad taste and shamelessly cashing in on other peoples misery.)

4. The changing distribution of West Nile Virus. (Kind of niche, is rabies in the homeless passe these days or something? Someone tell the writers of House. The authors grudgingly noted that malaria was unlikely in Canada unless there was a catastrophic public health fail, so any mosquito borne disease will do, right?)

Heat wave induced deaths tends to be the mainstay of predicted global warming mortality. The authors note with horror that:
the number of days per year above 30°C has almost doubled in the city of Toronto from the period 1961–1990 to the period 1995–2005

As an Australian, I would beg forgiveness for a moment while I double over in laughter and sarcastically yell "Oh, My GOD! We're all going to die!!!". Over 30°C?! When I was a kid they didn't even have to think about letting you go home from school until the mercury topped 40°C, and even then they often didn't bother. I used to have to play compulsory touch RUGBY when it was 35°C on sports day. Several times in my life I can remember summer heat reaching over 46°C in major capital cities. Welcome to Oz. Last time I checked, we don't all expire every summer. In fact, more people die here in winter, which isn't exactly blizzard material. (I remember the first time I saw snow. I was a teenager and it was in New Zealand.)

Undeterred, the authors of the paper state that:
In New York City, summer heat-related mortality could more than double by the 2050s, and more than triple by the 2080s. Similar projections are made for four large Canadian cities: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Windsor.

Go tell that to a dead homeless guy who froze to death under a bridge near you. And didn't Toronto just issue an extreme cold weather alert?
"The City of Toronto recognized that extreme cold weather can be life-threatening to homeless people or individuals who spend a lot of time outdoors. That's why we issued the alert," said Patricia Trott, a spokesperson for the City of Toronto.

The authors of the homeless v. climate change paper do note that the possibility of balmy nights isn't all doom and gloom:
In Canada, cold-related mortality may decline by as much as 45–60% by 2050. Furthermore, respiratory illnesses such as influenza may be reduced slightly by warmer winters.
But then, just in case you were mentally firing up the bbq and putting a six pack on ice, they deep six any positives almost immediately:
Most research has suggested that while there will be health gains, they will be minor and will be outweighed by the adverse health impacts of climate change.

Because climate change is bad, M'kay, but just in case, lets have a look at the figures.

(After banging my head against the portal that is Statistics Canada for a while looking for seasonal mortality rates, I shamefacedly found exactly what I was looking for at Wattsupwiththat), the following figures are for Canada:

Which looks to me like a bit of a seasonal trend. The Wattsupwiththat article then shows figures that calculate the average excess deaths above the mean for Canada as being in the order of 5, 600 per year. How many lives are they expecting to lose if the temperature increases by a measly 2 or so average degrees that would negate saving the lives of what they say could be up to 60% of 5, 600?

Oft cited as a case study (and referenced by the Canadian authors) for the potential mortality in a heat wave was the European heat wave of 2001. However, when Russian researchers analysed the excess deaths in Moscow of the 2001 heatwave versus winter excess deaths during cold spells in 2006 (bearing in mind what constitutes a cold snap to a Russian), they worked out up to 40% of the excess heat wave deaths were brought forward by only a matter of days, which brought down the real tally substantially. (They called it "Harvesting, or short-term mortality displacement", which I fully intend to randomly drop into future conversations. "I didn't screw up the meds, the patient just suffered a short-term mortality displacement.") The overall excess deaths during the cold snaps remained higher, although primarily in an over 75 year old age bracket.

Now if I was naked and drunk, and someone said I had a choice between being dropped off in Minnesota or Barbados in January, I know which one I would pick. (Psst. For the unusually dense, I'd choose the tropical one with the rum.) If you have trouble deciding, then congratulations! You, too, could be the author of a peer reviewed paper such as this.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Elephantiasis: Why have the alarmists overlooked it?

Somehow I got to thinking about elephantiasis*, or lymphatic filariasis as its also known. Surely everyone has that defining moment when they first saw a photo of an unfortunate sufferer dragging his nuts around in a wheelbarrow, or is that just me?

It occurred to me the other day that the filarial parasite is spread by mosquitoes, and yet not once have I heard an alarmist warn that cimate change was going to lead to an increase in elephantiasis. Huh. Even a few quick literature searches hasn't led to much of anything specifically trumpeting the link. (Although I have discovered that November the 11th is National Filaria Day in India. Mark it on your calendar.)

Even the WHO managed to get all the way through a lymphatic filariasis fact sheet without once mentioning climate change or global warming. In fact, in an almost scary display of rationality, they mention in the first paragraph that:
In tropical and subtropical areas where lymphatic filariasis is well-established, the prevalence of infection is continuing to increase. A primary cause of this increase is the rapid and unplanned growth of cities, which creates numerous breeding sites for the mosquitoes that transmit the disease.

Double huh. To tell you the truth I am somewhat surprised. Doesn't elephantiasis have enough tropical freaky Ewww value to appeal to the warmists? Is malaria or dengue somehow sexier because it brings to mind pallid, febrile englishmen in pith helmets and white cotton shirts, artfully unbuttoned to expose chests bedewed with fever sweat? Or is that just me again? (Ahh, Paul, you can be the colonial overlord and I'll be the dusky, south seas maid.**)

I'm offended on behalf of the filarial parasite and elephantiasis sufferers everywhere. Were they disinvited from the climate and health gravy-train ride for fear they would take up too much space? What gives?

* Also considered as a title was "Is that elephantiasis, or are you just happy to see me?".
** My initial thought was to say "Lets play sahibs and dhobi wallahs", but decided that was possibly too wierd. Although not as wierd as the time a friend of mine, on his way to a fancy dress party, got into a lift dressed as an English officer of the Raj, only to discover the only other occupant of the lift was a middle-aged Sikh. When they reached the ground floor, the Sikh gentleman turned to him and said "Under the circumstances, sir, I think I should go first."

Cold weather breaks records, legs.

Its summer here in the antipodes, and while I soak up ultra violet that may or may not be good for me, our colonial British overlords* are in the grip of one of the coldest winters for almost thirty years.

At least one hospital has seen a sudden rash of cold weather related trauma presentations to its ED, King's College Hospital isn't sure if all its outpatients services will be running or even if all its staff will turn up, and one young doctor wound up freezing her tits off using skis to get to work:

Not to worry, though. The NHS (aka "Captain Obvious") has helpfully noted on their web site that:
One of the best ways of keeping yourself well during winter is to stay warm.

Interestingly, they then go on to note that:
Every winter in the UK, 25–30,000 deaths are linked to the cold weather. Currently, more than three million households in the UK are in fuel poverty. This is when a household spends more than 10% of its income to keep warm.

Huh. Thats wierd, just two years ago the Department of Health commissioned a report that predicted:
more summer deaths are expected, fewer people will die in Britain as a result of cold winter weather, as the world warms up because of rising carbon emissions from human activity.

and that:
more than 3,000 people could die in an intense summer hot spell...
...The report, an update of a 2002 study, was re-issued on the same day London's mayor said owners of the most polluting cars will have to pay 25 pounds a day to drive them in the city centre in a measure to cut down on carbon emissions.

25 pounds is alot of money. I don't want to stir up trouble (heh), but I'd be a bit cranky about that if it was my hard-earned that was contributing to a net loss of around 22, 000 - 27, 000 lives by preventing some life saving global warming.

* Possibly one of the last true colonies they have left, although we're still a bit put out by the whole Breaker Morant, Gallipoli thing. Every school I went to as a child (and all government buildings) had a picture of Her Maj, the Queen, and for one memorable period in the late 1970's, early '80's a particularly corrupt state premier made all of the school kiddies line up and sing God Save the Queen instead of Advance Australia Fair. (And No, Waltzing Matilda is NOT the national anthem of Australia, although we do seem to have unofficially jettisoned the second verse of the real national anthem. I think it was the line about "for those who've come from across the seas we've boundless lands to share". Apparently it was sending all the wrong messages to illegal immigrants.)
The Queen also appears to own the local prison near here, which has H.M. in front of the name. Odd, unless you consider our convict past.

More to Peter Spencer's story?

The front page of The Australian has reported that there may be more background to Peter Spencer's reasons for hunger striking.

Read it here.

According to Peter Spencer's brother, there were family financial issues at play that may or may not have bearing on what he is doing now. However, attempts by The Australian to muddy the waters by bringing up an armed stand off he had with police 40 years ago after a marriage breakdown seems a bit ridiculous. It arguably makes for a better story, but I am wary of taking one crazy episode from someones youth as an explanation for something they are doing 40 years later. In fact, I am probably more wary of people who haven't done anything a bit questionable in their lives.

Always with these types of causes I bear in mind that we could all have egg on our faces at the end of the day. That natural caution is why I am generally not a joiner and how I wound up a climate skeptic. It occurred to me early on that Peter Spencer may be a bit nutty or snacking on the odd power-bar along the way (I certainly hope so), but at the end of the day it doesnt really matter, as he has publicised a little known government con-job perpetrated in the name of global warming, and that can only be a good thing.

The medico in me has been concerned from the get-go with his mental and physical health, given the extreme situation he has felt driven to. I hope there is some kind of resolution to the situation that allows him an out with his health and dignity intact, at the very least.

It would be a shame if the government was let off the hook on their policy decisions through media attempts at marginalising this poor bloke. Regardless of any background story on Peter Spencer, the issues he is protesting still stand.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Peter Spencer on 46th day of hunger strike

Warning: Lack of humour alert!!!

It has taken over a month for the main stream media to cover the hunger strike of Australian sheep farmer Peter Spencer, and predictably, now that the situation has reached an extreme, they are starting to report on it. At this rate, he may even break a record, but I, for one, hope he is back on the ground and tucking into a bowel of broth before then.

For background on his reasons for the hunger strike, this article from the financial times is quite good.

In essence, the government placed land clearing bans on farmer's properties to meet carbon emission reduction targets, reducing the economic viability of the affected farms and virtually destroying the property value. Pretty much without compensating them accordingly.

Contrary to the rugged outback Aussie stereotype, Australias largely urban population are far removed from the plight of primary industry. Food miraculously appears on their tables with no thought of where it comes from, and even the fact that Australian food prices are the second highest in the OECD hasn't given the populace a much needed heads-up.

Given that Peter Spencer is a sheep farmer, I will use the rather topical example of lamb prices. Lamb used to be poverty food in this country, even in my (not too distant, alright) childhood, we were forced to eat lamb chops three nights a week at least, and sausages the other. It was one of the cheapest ways to feed a family. In the last ten years lamb prices have doubled in price, and if the trend remains the same, lamb cutlets could retail for $100 / kilo by 2016.

Rising overseas demand and falling production have been credited with the record highs in lamb price.

Call me selfish, but being able to eat well tops my list of quality of life issues. We need Peter Spencer down from that tree, nursed back to health and herding sheep for our table. Stat.