Alpha-Gal and the Gaia Hypothesis

Ticking Point

An increasing number of people are reportedly suffering from an allergy to the meat and other products of nonhuman mammals, reports Mosaic Science this week, and we’re increasingly confident that the cause is a sensitivity to alpha-gal (Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose), a carbohydrate produced in the bodies of virtually all mammals except for us and our cousin apes, monkeys, and simians (and one of the reasons you can’t transplant tissue from pigs to humans, for example).

Lone star tick
The lone star tick (You call that a star, tick? Looks like a blob to me!), one of several vectors for alpha-gal sensitivity.

The interesting thing is that the most-common cause of alpha-gal sensitivity appears to be the bite of one of a small number of species of tick. The most-likely hypothesis seems to be that being bitten by such a tick after it’s bitten e.g. deer or cattle may introduce that species’ alpha-gal directly to your bloodstream. This exposure triggers an immune response through all future exposure, even if it’s is more minor, e.g. consuming milk products or even skin contact with an animal.

That’s nuts, isn’t it? The Mosaic Science article describes the reaction of Tami McGraw, whose symptoms began in 2010:

[She] asked her doctor to order a little-known blood test that would show if her immune system was reacting to a component of mammal meat. The test result was so strongly positive, her doctor called her at home to tell her to step away from the stove.

That should have been the end of her problems. Instead it launched her on an odyssey of discovering just how much mammal material is present in everyday life. One time, she took capsules of liquid painkiller and woke up in the middle of the night, itching and covered in hives provoked by the drug’s gelatine covering.

When she bought an unfamiliar lip balm, the lanolin in it made her mouth peel and blister. She planned to spend an afternoon gardening, spreading fertiliser and planting flowers, but passed out on the grass and had to be revived with an EpiPen. She had reacted to manure and bone meal that were enrichments in bagged compost she had bought.

A delicious-looking BLT. Mmm, bacon.
Cats can eat bacon. But some cat owners can’t. More bacon for the cats? The plot thickens. Also: haven’t used this picture in a while, have I?

Of course, this isn’t the only nor even the most-unusual (or most-severe) animal-induced allergy-to-a-different-animal we’re aware of. The hilariously-named but terribly-dangerous Pork-Cat syndrome is caused, though we’re not sure how, by exposure to cats and results in a severe allergy to pork. But what makes alpha-gal sensitivity really interesting is that it’s increasing in frequency at quite a dramatic rate. The culprit? Climate change. Probably.

It’s impossible to talk to physicians encountering alpha-gal cases without hearing that something has changed to make the tick that transmits it more common – even though they don’t know what that something might be.

“Climate change is likely playing a role in the northward expansion,” Ostfeld adds, but acknowledges that we don’t know what else could also be contributing.

Meat Me Half-Way

To take a minor diversion: another article I saw this week was the BBC‘s one on the climate footprint of the food you eat.

BBC graph showing climate impact of common foods. Beef is terrible *unshocker*.
An average serving of beef contributes almost 8kg of greenhouse gases, compared to around 1kg for chicken. Thanks, Beeb (click through for full article).

A little dated, perhaps: I’m sure that nobody needs to be told nowadays that one of the biggest things a Westerner can do to reduce their personal carbon footprint (after from breeding less or not at all, which I maintain is the biggest, or avoiding air travel, which Statto argues for) is to reduce or refrain from consumption of meat (especially pork and beef) and dairy products.

Indeed, environmental impact was the biggest factor in my vegetarianism (now weekday-vegetarianism) for the last eight years, and it’s an outlook that I’ve seen continue to grow in others over the same period.

Seeing these two stories side-by-side in my RSS reader put the Gaia hypothesis in my mind.

SMBC comic frame: "Yeah, I don't buy it. If Earth is self-regulating and alive, why hasn't it produced an immune response against humanity?"
If you want a pop-culture-grade introduction to the Gaia hypothesis in the context of climate change, this SMBC comic does the job, and does so almost with fewer words than this caption explaining that it does so.

If you’re not familiar with the Gaia hypothesis, the basic idea is this: by some mechanism, the Earth and all of the life on it act in synergy to maintain homeostasis. Organisms not only co-evolve with one another but also with the planet itself, affecting their environment in a way that in turn affects their future evolution in a perpetual symbiotic relationship of life and its habitat.

Its advocates point to negative feedback loops in nature such as plankton blooms affecting the weather in ways that inhibit plankton blooms and to simplistic theoretical models like the Daisyworld Simulation (cute video). A minority of its proponents go a step further and describe the Earth’s changes teleologically, implying a conscious Earth with an intention to protect its ecosystems (yes, these hypotheses were born out of the late 1960s, why do you ask?). Regardless, the essence is the same: life’s effect on its environment affects the environment’s hospitality to life, and vice-versa.

There’s an attractive symmetry to it, isn’t there, in light of the growth in alpha-gal allergies? Like:

  1. Yesterday – agriculture, particularly intensive farming of mammals, causes climate change.
  2. Today – climate change causes ticks to spread more-widely and bite more humans.
  3. Tomorrow – tick bites cause humans to consume less products farmed from mammals?
Daisyworld in SimEarth
Both my appreciation and my rejection of Gaia Hypothesis can probably be traced to me playing way too much SimEarth as a teenager. Here’s my Daisyworld in state of equilibrium, because I haven’t yet gotten bored and spawned dinosaurs to eat all of the daisies.

That’s not to say that I buy it, mind. The Gaia hypothesis has a number of problems, and – almost as bad – it encourages a complacent “it’ll all be okay, the Earth will fix itself” mindset to climate change (which, even if it’s true, doesn’t bode well for the humans residing on it).

But it was a fun parallel to land in my news reader this morning, so I thought I’d share it with you. And, by proxy, make you just a little bit warier of ticks than you might have been already. /shudders/

The Dirty Secret of the Global Plan to Avert Climate Disaster

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

In 2014 Henrik Karlsson, a Swedish entrepreneur whose startup was failing, was lying in bed with a bankruptcy notice when the BBC called. The reporter had a scoop: On the eve of releasing a major report, the United Nation’s climate change panel appeared to be touting an untried technology as key to keeping planetary temperatures at safe levels. The technology went by the inelegant acronym BECCS, and Karlsson was apparently the only BECCS expert the reporter could find.

Karlsson was amazed. The bankruptcy notice was for his BECCS startup, which he’d founded seven years earlier after an idea came to him while watching a late-night television show in Gothenburg, Sweden. The show explored the benefits of capturing carbon dioxide before it was emitted from power plants. It’s the technology behind the much-touted notion of “clean coal,” a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down climate change.

Karlsson, then a 27-year-old studying to be an operatic tenor, was no climate scientist or engineer. Still, the TV show got him thinking: During photosynthesis plants naturally suck carbon dioxide from the air, storing it in their leaves, branches, seeds, roots, and trunks. So what if you grew crops and then burned those crops for electricity, being sure to capture all of the carbon dioxide emitted? You’d then store all that dangerous CO2 underground. Such a power plant wouldn’t just be emitting less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, it would effectively be sucking CO2 from the air. Karlsson was enraptured with the idea. He was going to help avert a global disaster.

Wonderful but horrifying longread about the truth of the theoretical effectiveness of the Paris Agreement. The short: if we’re going to keep global temperature rises under a “bad” 2°C rather than closer to a “catastrophic” 4°C, we need to take action, but the vast majority of the plans that have been authored on how to do that rely on investment in technologies and infrastructure that nobody is investing in and that might not work even if we did. We’re fucked, in short. See also this great video about greening the Sahara in an effort to lock carbon into plants (another great idea that, surprise surprise, nobody’s investing in).

Swiss startup Energy Vault is stacking concrete blocks to store energy — Quartz

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmrwdTGZxGk

Thanks to the modern electric grid, you have access to electricity whenever you want. But the grid only works when electricity is generated in the same amounts as it is consumed. That said, it’s impossible to get the balance right all the time. So operators make grids more flexible by adding ways to store excess electricity for when production drops or consumption rises.

About 96% of the world’s energy-storage capacity comes in the form of one technology: pumped hydro. Whenever generation exceeds demand, the excess electricity is used to pump water up a dam. When demand exceeds generation, that water is allowed to fall—thanks to gravity—and the potential energy turns turbines to produce electricity.

But pumped-hydro storage requires particular geographies, with access to water and to reservoirs at different altitudes. It’s the reason that about three-quarters of all pumped hydro storage has been built in only 10 countries. The trouble is the world needs to add a lot more energy storage, if we are to continue to add the intermittent solar and wind power necessary to cut our dependence on fossil fuels.

A startup called Energy Vault thinks it has a viable alternative to pumped-hydro: Instead of using water and dams, the startup uses concrete blocks and cranes. It has been operating in stealth mode until today (Aug. 18), when its existence will be announced at Kent Presents, an ideas festival in Connecticut.

Solar Power, part 2

At the very end of last year, right before the subsidy rate dropped in January, I had solar panels installed: you may remember that I blogged about it at the time. I thought you might be interested to know how that’s working out for us.

Solar panels on our roof.
A power plant, right on top of our house. It’s very small – like, a “13” on Power Grid – but it’s ours.

Because I’m a data nerd, I decided to monitor our energy usage, production, and total cost in order to fully understand the economic impact of our tiny power station. I appreciate that many of you might not be able to appreciate how cool this kind of data is, but that’s because you don’t have as good an appreciation of how fun statistics can be… it is cool, damn it!

This chart, for example, shows our energy usage in KWh of each of gas and electricity for the last 8 months.
This stacked area chart, for example, shows our energy usage in KWh of each of gas and electricity for the last 8 months.

If you look at the chart above, for example (click for a bigger version), you’ll notice a few things:

  • We use a lot more KWh of gas than electricity (note that’s not units of gas: our gas meter measures in cubic feet, which means we have to multiply by around… 31.5936106… to get the KWh… yes, really – more information here), but electricity is correspondingly 3.2 times more expensive per KWh – I have a separate chart to measure our daily energy costs, and it is if anything even more exciting (can you imagine!) than this one.
  • Our gas usage grows dramatically in the winter – that’s what the big pink “lump” is. That’s sort-of what you’d expect on account of our gas central heating.
  • Our electricity usage has trended downwards since the beginning of the year, when the solar panels were installed. It’s hard to see with the gas scale throwing it off (but again, the “cost per day” chart makes it very clear). There’s also a bit near the end where the electricity usage seems to fall of the bottom of the chart… more on that in a moment.
Solar panels pay for themselves by (1) powering your appliances, thus meaning you buy less electricity from the grid, (2) selling electricity that is generated but not used back to the grid, and (3) through a subsidy scheme that rewards the generation of green electricity.
Solar panels (slowly) pay for themselves in three different ways. People often find it surprising that there aren’t only one or two.

What got me sold on the idea of installing solar panels, though, was their long-term investment potential. I had the money sitting around anyway, and by my calculations we’ll get a significantly better return-on-investment out of our little roof-mounted power station than I would out of a high-interest savings account or bond. And that’s because of the oft-forgotten “third way” in which solar panelling pays for itself. Allow me to explain:

  1. Powering appliances: the first and most-obvious way in which solar power makes economic sense is that it powers your appliances. Right now, we generate almost as much electricity as we use (although because we use significantly more power in the evenings, only about a third of what which we generate goes directly into making our plethora of computers hum away).
  2. Selling back to the grid (export tariff): as you’re probably aware, it’s possible for a household solar array to feed power back into the National Grid: so the daylight that we’re collecting at times when we don’t need the electricity is being sold back to our energy company (who in turn is selling it, most-likely, to our neighbours). Because they’re of an inclination to make a profit, though (and more-importantly, because we can’t commit to making electricity for them when they need it: only during the day, and dependent upon sunlight), they only buy units from us at about a third of the rate that they sell them to consumers. As a result, it’s worth our while trying to use the power we generate (e.g. to charge batteries and to run things that can be run “at any point” during the day like the dishwasher, etc.) rather than to sell it only to have to buy it back.
  3. From a government subsidy (feed-in tariff): here’s the pleasant surprise – as part of government efforts to increase the proportion of the country’s energy that is produced from renewable sources, they subsidise renewable microgeneration. So if you install a wind turbine in your garden or a solar array on your roof, you’ll get a kickback for each unit of electricity that you generate. And that’s true whether you use it to power appliances or sell it back to the grid – in the latter case, you’re basically being paid twice for it! The rate that you get paid as a subsidy gets locked-in for ~20 years after you build your array, but it’s gradually decreasing. We’re getting paid a little over 14.5p per unit of electricity generated, per day.
A graph showing the number of units per day we've generated, peaking during that  sunny spell in late April.
Late April was bright and sunny and we were able to generate up to 19 units per day (for contrast, we use around 12 units per day), but May has so-far been rainy and grey and we’ve made only about 13 units per day.

As the seasons have changed from Winter through Spring we’ve steadily seen our generation levels climbing. On a typical day, we now make more electricity than we use. We’re still having to buy power from the grid, of course, because we use more electricity in the evening than we’re able to generate when the sun is low in the sky: however, if (one day) technology like Tesla’s PowerWall becomes widely-available at reasonable prices, there’s no reason that a house like ours couldn’t be totally independent of the grid for 6-8 months of the year.

Two SSE engineers head back to their van.
These guys came and replaced our electricity meter, because it was… umm… running backwards.

So: what are we saving/making? Well, looking at the last week of April and the first week of May, and comparing them to the same period last year:

  1. Powering appliances: we’re saving about 60p per day on electricity costs (down to about £1.30 per day).
  2. Selling back to the grid: we’re earning about 50p per day in exports.
  3. From a government subsidy: we’re earning about £2.37 per day in subsidies.

As I’m sure you can see: this isn’t peanuts. When you include the subsidy then it’s possible to consider our energy as being functionally “free”, even after you compensate for the shorter days of the winter. Of course, there’s a significant up-front cost in installing solar panels! It’s hard to say exactly when, at this point, I expect them to have paid for themselves (from which point I’ll be able to use the expected life of the equipment to more-accurately predict the total return-on-investment): I’m planning to monitor the situation for at least a year, to cover the variance of the seasons, but I will of course report back when I have more data.

Electricity meter with red light showing.
Our new electricity meter, which replaced the old one – one of those with a “wheel”. The red light indicates that fraud has been detected. Yeah, about that…

I mentioned that the first graph wasn’t accurate? Yeah: so it turns out that our house’s original electricity meter was of an older design that would run backwards when electricity was being exported to the grid. Which was great to see, but not something that our electricity company approved of, on account of the fact that they were then paying us for the electricity we sold back to the grid, twice: for a couple of days of April sunshine, our electricity meter consistently ran backwards throughout the day. So they sent a couple of engineers out to replace it with a more-modern one, pictured above (which has a different problem: its “fraud light” comes on whenever we’re sending power back to the grid, but apparently that’s “to be expected”).

In any case, this quirk of our old meter has made some of my numbers from earlier this year more-optimistic than they might otherwise be, and while I’ve tried to compensate for this it’s hard to be certain that my estimates prior to its replacement are accurate. So it’s probably going to take me a little longer than I’d planned to have an accurate baseline of exactly how much money solar is making for us.

But making money, it certainly is.

Solar Power, part 1

One of the great joys of owning a house is that you can do pretty much whatever you please with it. I celebrated Ruth, JTA and I’s purchase of Greendale last year by wall-mounting not one but two televisions and putting shelves up everywhere. But honestly, a little bit of DIY isn’t that unusual nor special. We’ve got plans for a few other changes to the house, but right now we’re pushing our eco-credentials: we had cavity wall insulation added to the older parts of the building the other week and an electric car charging port added not long before that. And then… came this week’s big change.

Look at all that South-facing roof, sitting there serving no purpose except to keep the rain off our heads.
Look at all that South-facing roof, sitting there serving no purpose except to keep the rain off our heads.

Solar photovoltaics! They’re cool, they’re (becoming) economical, and we’ve got this big roof that faces almost due-South that would otherwise be just sitting there catching rain. Why not show off our green credentials and save ourselves some money by covering it with solar cells, we thought.

Annabel sits at the window and supervises the parking of the structural engineer, the electrician, and the solar panel specialist.
Annabel sits at the window and supervises the parking of the structural engineer, the electrician, and the solar panel specialist.

Because it’s me, I ended up speaking to five different companies and, after removing one from the running for employing a snake for a salesman, collecting seven quotes from the remaining four, I began to do my own research. The sheer variety of panels, inverters, layouts and configurations (all of which are described in their technical sheets using terms that in turn required a little research into electrical efficiency and dusting off formulas I’d barely used since my physics GCSE exam) are mind-boggling. Monolithic, string, or micro-inverters? 250w or 327w panels? Where to run the cables that connect the inverter (in the attic) to the generation meter and fusebox (in the ground floor toilet)? Needless to say, every company had a different idea about the “best way” to do it – sometimes subtly different, sometimes dramatically – and had a clear agenda to push. So – as somebody not suckered in to a quick deal – I went and did the background reading first.

Scaffolding!
The shape of our conservatory made erecting the scaffolding (which “straddles” it) a somewhat complicated operation.

In case you’re not yet aware, let me tell you the three reasons that solar panels are a great idea, economically-speaking. Firstly, of course, they make electricity out of sunlight which you can then use: that’s pretty cool. With good discipline and a monitoring tool either in hardware or software, you can discover the times that you’re making more power than you’re using, and use that moment to run the dishwasher or washing machine or car charger or whatever. Or the tumble drier, I suppose, although if you’re using the tumble drier because it’s sunny then you lose a couple of your ‘green points’ right there. So yeah: free energy is a nice selling point.

The second point is that the grid will buy the energy you make but don’t use. That’s pretty cool, too – if it’s a sunny day but there’s nobody in the house, then our electricity meter will run backwards: we’re selling power back to the grid for consumption by our neighbours. Your energy provider pays you for that, although they only pay you about a third of what you pay them to get the energy back again if you need it later, so it’s always more-efficient to use the power (if you’ve genuinely got something to use it for, like ad-hoc bitcoin mining or something) than to sell it. That said, it’s still “free money”, so you needn’t complain too much.

The third way that solar panels make economic sense is still one of the most-exciting, though. In order to enhance uptake of solar power and thus improve the chance that we hit the carbon emission reduction targets that Britain committed to at the Kyoto Protocol (and thus avoid a multi-billion-pound fine), the government subsidises renewable microgeneration plants. If you install solar panels on your house before the end of this year (when the subsidy is set to decrease) the government will pay you 14.38p per unit of electricity you produce… whether you use it or whether you sell it. That rate is retail price index linked and guaranteed for 20 years, and as a result residential solar installations invariably “pay for themselves” within that period, making them a logical investment for anybody who’s got a suitable roof and who otherwise has the money just sitting around. (If you don’t have the cash to hand, it might be worth taking out a loan to pay for solar panels, but then the maths gets a lot more complicated.)

Dan with his solar panels.
Look ma, no carbon emissions.

The scaffolding went up on the afternoon of day one, and I took the opportunity to climb up myself and give the gutters a good cleaning-out, because it’s a lot easier to do that from a fixed platform than it is from our wobbly “community ladder”. On day two, a team of electricians and a solar expert appeared at breakfast time and by 3pm they were gone, leaving behind a fully-functional solar array. On day three, we were promised that the scaffolding company would reappear and remove the climbing frame from our garden, but it’s now dark and they’ve not been seen yet, which isn’t ideal but isn’t the end of the world either: not least because Ruth’s been unwell and thus hasn’t had the chance to get up and see the view from the top of it, yet.

Greendale energy usage for the last four months.
Because that’s the kind of nerd I am, I have a process in place already to monitor our energy use fluctuations: note the jump in gas usage as we turned on the central heating for the winter!

We made about 4 units of electricity on our first day, which didn’t seem bad for an overcast afternoon about a fortnight away from the shortest day of the year. That’s about enough to power every light bulb in the house for the duration that the sun was in the sky, plus a little extra (we didn’t opt to commemorate the occasion by leaving the fridge door open in order to ensure that we used every scrap of the power we generated).

Because I’m a bit of a data nerd these years, I’ve been monitoring our energy usage lately anyway and as a result I’ve got an interesting baseline against which to compare the effectiveness of this new addition. And because there’s no point in being a data nerd if you don’t get to share the data love, I will of course be telling you all about it as soon as I know more.

The Snip, Part 2

[spb_message color=”alert-info” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]This is the second part of a three-part blog post about my vasectomy. Did you read the first part, yet?[/spb_message]

My vasectomy was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, so I left work early in order to cycle up to the hospital: my plan was to cycle up there, and then have Ruth ride my bike back while JTA drove me home. For a moment, though, I panicked the clinic receptionist when she saw me arrive carrying a cycle helmet and pannier bag: she assumed that I must be intending to cycle home after the operation!

The Elliot-Smith Clinic. Picture copyright Google Street View.
The Elliot-Smith Clinic lives in an old prefab building buried at the back end of the hospital campus. If you think it looks scary in this picture, imagine what it’s like when it’s dark and you’re going there to be stabbed in the genitals.

It took me long enough to find the building, cycling around the hospital in the dark, and a little longer still to reassure myself that this underlit old building could actually be a place where surgery took place.

My tweet: "Arrived at vasectomy clinic. It's the most well-hidden, badly-lit, shady-looking building I've ever seen on a hospital campus."
My tweet upon arriving at the clinic.

Despite my GP’s suggestion to the contrary, the staff didn’t feel the need to take me though their counselling process, despite me ticking some (how many depends primarily upon how you perceive our unusual relationship structure) of the “we would prefer to counsel additionally” boxes on their list of criteria. I’d requested that Ruth arrive at about the beginning of the process specifically so that she could “back me up” if needed (apparently, surgeons will sometimes like to speak to the partner of a man requesting a vasectomy), but nobody even asked. I just had to sign another couple of consent forms to confirm that I really did understand what I was doing, and then I was ready to go!

I’d shaved my balls a few days earlier, at the request of the clinic (and also at Matt‘s suggestion, who pointed out that “if I don’t, they’ll do it for me, and I doubt they’ll be as gentle!” – although it must be pointed out that as they were already planning to take a blade to my junk, I might not have so much to worry about), which had turned out to be a challenge in itself. I’ve since looked online and found lots of great diagrams showing you which parts you need to shave, but the picture I’d been given might as well have been a road map of Florence, because no matter which way up I turned it, it didn’t look anything like my genitals. In the end, I just shaved all over the damn place, just to be sure. Still not an easy feat, though, because the wrinkled skin makes for challenging shaving: the best technique I found was to “stretch” my scrotum out with one hand while I shaved it with the other – a tricky (and scary) maneuver.

Where to shave before your vasectomy: front and side of the scrotum.
If I’d had a diagram like this, rather than an Italian street map, I might have stood a better chance of just shaving what I needed to shave.

After sitting in the waiting room for a while, I was ushered through some forms and a couple more questions of “are you sure?”, and then herded into a curtained cubicle to change into a surgical gown (over the top of which I wore my usual dressing gown). The floor was cold, and I’d forgotten to bring my slippers, so I kept my socks on throughout. I sat in a separate waiting area from the first, and attempted to make small talk with the other gents waiting there. Some had just come out of surgery, and some were still waiting to go in, and the former would gently tease the latter with jokes about the operation. It’s a man thing, I guess: I can’t imagine that women would be so likely to engage in such behaviour (ignoring, for a moment, the nature of the operation).

There are several different approaches to vasectomy, and my surgeon was kind enough to tolerate my persistent questions as I asked about the specifics of each part of the operation. He’d said – after I asked – that one of the things he liked about doing vasectomies was that (unlike most of the other surgeries he performs) his patients are awake and he can have a conversation while he worked, although I guess he hadn’t anticipated that there’d ever be anybody quite so interested as I was.

[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: The remainder of this blog post describes a surgical procedure, which some people might find squicky. For the protection of those who are of a weak stomach, some photos have been hidden behind hyperlinks: click at your own risk. (though honestly, I don’t think they’re that bad)[/spb_message]

With my scrotum pulled up through a hole in a paper sheet, the surgeon began by checking that “everything was where it was supposed to be”: he checked that he could find each vas (if you’ve not done this: borrow the genitals of the nearest man or use your own, squeeze moderately tightly between two fingers the skin above a testicle, and move around a bit until you find a hard tube: that’s almost certainly a vas). Apparently surgeons are supposed to take care to ensure that they’ve found two distinct tubes, so they don’t for example sever the same one twice.

Next, he gave the whole thing a generous soaking in iodine. This turned out to be fucking freezing. The room was cold enough already, so I asked him to close the window while my genitals quietly shivered above the sheet.

Next up came the injection. The local anesthetic used for this kind of operation is pretty much identical to the kind you get at the dentist: the only difference is that if your dentist injected you here, that’d be considered a miss. While pinching the left vas between his fingertips, the surgeon squirted a stack of lidocaine into the cavity around it. And fuck me, that hurt like being kicked in the balls. Seriously: that stung quite a bit for a few minutes, until the anasthesia kicked in and instead the whole area felt “tingly”, in that way that your lips do after dental surgery.

Pinching the vas (still beneath the skin at this point) in a specially-shaped clamp, the surgeon made a puncture wound “around” it with a sharp-nosed pair of forceps, and pulled the vas clean through the hole. This was a strange sensation – I couldn’t feel any pain, but I was aware of the movement – a “tugging” against my insides.

A quick snip removed a couple of centimetres from the middle of it (I gather that removing a section, rather than just cutting, helps to reduce the – already slim – risk that the two loose ends will grow back together again) and cauterised the ends. The cauterisation was a curious experience, because while I wasn’t aware of any sensation of heat, I could hear a sizzling sound and smell my own flesh burning. It turns out that my flaming testicles smell a little like bacon. Or, if you’d like to look at it another way (and I can almost guarantee that you don’t): bacon smells a little bit like my testicles, being singed.

Next up came Righty’s turn, but he wasn’t playing ball (pun intended). The same steps got as far as clamping and puncturing before I suddenly felt a sharp pain, getting rapidly worse. “Ow… ow… owowowowowow!” I said, possibly with a little more swearing, as the surgeon blasted another few mils of anesthetic into my bollocks. And then a little more. And damnit: it turns out that no matter how much you’ve had injected into you already, injecting anesthetics into your tackle always feels like a kick in the nuts for a few minutes. Grr.

  • The removed sections of my vas, on a tray (actually mine)
    You can see the “kink” in each, where it was pulled out by the clamp. Also visible is the clamp itself – a cruel-looking piece of equipment, I’m sure you’ll agree! – and the discarded caps from some of the syringes that were used.

The benefit of this approach, the “no-scalpel vasectomy”, is that the puncture wounds are sufficiently small as to not need stitches. At the end of the surgery, the surgeon just stuck a plaster onto the hole and called it done. I felt a bit light-headed and wobbly-legged, so I sat on the operating table for a few minutes to compose myself before returning to the nurses’ desk for my debrief. I only spent about 20 minutes, in total, with the surgeon: I’ve spent longer (and suffered more!) at the dentist.

"Happy Vasectomy" card from Liz and Simon.
Later, I would receive this “Happy Vasectomy” card from Liz and Simon. Thanks, guys!

By the evening, the anesthetic had worn off and I was in quite a bit of pain, again: perhaps worse than that “kick in the balls” moment when the anesthetic was first injected, but without the relief that the anesthetic brought! I took some paracetamol and – later – some codeine, and slept with a folded-over pillow wedged between my knees, after I discovered how easy it was to accidentally squish my sore sack whenever I shifted my position.

The day after was somewhat better. I was walking like John Wayne, but this didn’t matter because – as the nurse had suggested – I spent most of the day lying down “with my feet as high as my bottom”. She’d taken the time to explain that she can’t put a bandage nor a sling on my genitals (and that I probably wouldn’t want her to, if she could), so the correct alternative is to wear tight-fitting underwear (in place of a bandage) and keep my legs elevated (as a sling). Having seen pictures of people with painful-looking bruises and swelling as a result of not following this advice, I did so as best as I could.

Today’s the day after that: I’m still in a little pain – mostly in Righty, again, which shall henceforth be called “the troublesome testicle” – but it’s not so bad except when I forget and do something like bend over or squat or, I discovered, let my balls “hang” under their own weight, at all. But altogether, it’s been not-too-bad at all.

Or, as I put on my feedback form at the clinic: “A+++. Recommended. Would vasectomy again.”

(thanks due to Ruth, JTA, Matt, Liz, Simon, Michelle, and my mum for support, suggestions, and/or fetching things to my bed for me while I’ve been waddling around looking like John Wayne, these past two days)

The Snip, Part 1

I’d like to start with a joke:

Is there a difference between men and women?

Yes! There’s a vas deferens.

What’s no joke, though, is the human population explosion. There’re just too damn many of us, as I explained last year. That’s the primary reason behind my decision, held for pretty-much the entirety of my adult life, to choose not to breed.

World population for the last 12,000 years.

I’m fully aware that the conscious decision to not-breed by a single individual – especially in the developed world – makes virtually no difference to the global fate of humanity. I’m under no illusion that my efforts as a vegetarian are saving the world either. But just like the voter who casts a ballot for their party – even though they know it won’t make a difference to the outcome of the election – I understand that doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily have to have a directly quantifiable benefit.

Somehow, this delicious-looking BLT makes an appearance almost any time I talk about overpopulation or vegetarianism. This is the fifth time.
Somehow, this delicious-looking BLT makes an appearance almost any time I talk about overpopulation or vegetarianism. This is the fifth time.

That’s why I’m finally taking the next obvious step. Next month, after literally years of talking about it, I’m finally going to put my genitals where my mouth is (hmm… maybe that wasn’t the best choice of words)! Next week, I’m getting a vasectomy.

The "F" is for "Fuck me you're going to put a scalpel WHERE?"
The “F” is for “Fuck me you’re going to put a scalpel WHERE?”

I first asked a doctor about the possibility of vasectomy about a decade ago. He remarked upon my age, and said – almost jokingly – “Come back in ten years if you still feel the same way!” I almost wish that I still had the same GP now, so that I could do exactly that. Instead, I spoke about a year ago to my (old) GP here in Oxford, who misled me into thinking that I would not be able to get the surgery on the NHS, and would have to have it done privately. Finally, a second doctor agreed to sign off their part of the consent form, and I was good to go. The secret, it seems, is persistence.

I suppose I'll be eligible for a Golden Snip Award. Click through for more information.
I suppose I’ll be eligible for a Golden Snip Award. Click through for more information.

I’m sure that this is a decision that won’t be without it’s controversies. And believe me: over the course of the most-of-my-life-so-far that I’ve hinted at or talked about doing this, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard all of the arguments. Still: I feel like I ought to pick up on some of the things I’ve heard most-often –

"Breeder Bingo" card. Complete a line, get a free case of contraceptives!
“Breeder Bingo” card. Complete a line, get a free case of contraceptives!

What if you change your mind?

Even despite medical advances in recent decades in vasectomy reversal, vasectomy should still be considered a “one way trip”. Especially when I was younger, people seemed concerned that I would someday change my mind, and then regret my decision not to spawn children.

I suppose that it’s conceivable – unlike my otherwise potential offspring – but it’s quite a stretch, to believe that I might someday regret not having children (at least not biologically: I have no problem with adopting, co-parenting, fostering, or any number of other options for being involved in the upbringing of kids). I honestly can’t see how that’d come about. But even if we do take that far-fetched idea: isn’t it equally possible that somebody might ultimately regret having children. We take risks in our lives with any choice that we make – maybe I’ll someday regret not having taken my degree in Law or Chemistry or Rural Studies. Well then: c’est la vie.

Do you just not like children?

Children are great, and I’d love to get the chance to be involved in raising some. However, I don’t define myself by that wish: if I never have the opportunity to look after any kids, ever, then that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world: I’d just spend my years writing code in a house full of cats. I have no doubt that raising children is great (for many people), but just like there are plenty of people for whom it’s not great, there are also plenty of people – like me – who could be happy either way. No biggie!

There are those who have said that this laid-back “take it or leave it” approach, especially when coupled with the more-recent act of rendering myself infertile, will make me less attractive to women. Leaving aside the implicit sexism in that claim, wouldn’t a fair retort be to point out that a woman who is looking for monogamous breeding probably isn’t my “type” to begin with!

But if only we could make sure only the RIGHT people breed...
But if only we could make sure only the RIGHT people breed…

But you should be breeding?

This argument’s usually based on the idea that I’m somehow genetically superior and that my children wouldn’t be such a strain on the world as somebody else’s, or that mine would have a significantly better-than-average chance of curing cancer, solving world hunger, or something.

The explosion of planet Earth.
Only sterilisation can prevent the detonation of the planet. Maybe.

And let’s face it, any child of mine would be just as likely to be the one to build a really big bomb. Or create a super-virus. Or just engineer the collapse the world’s economies into a prehistoric barter economy in a technophobic future anarchy. Attaboy.

In any case, I’m pretty sure that my personal contribution to the betterment of the world ought not to be a genetic one. I’d like to make a difference for the people who are around right now, rather than hypothetical people of the future, and I’d far rather leave ideas in my wake than a handful of genes. I’m sure that’s not the case for everybody, but then – it doesn’t have to be.

How about a vasectomy? (comic)
It takes balls to have a vasectomy. Literally.

Or are there some arguments that I’ve missed? If you’re among the folks who feel really strongly about this, then you’ve got about seven days to make them, and then it’s off to the clinic for me! Just remember: what’s right for me isn’t necessarily what’s right for you, and vice-versa. Just because I use Emacs doesn’t mean that some other, inferior text editor might not be the right choice for you.

I wonder what my surgeon might say to the possibility of me live-tweeting the process? Would anybody be interested? (I promise not to include any photos.)

(with thanks to Nina Paley for permission to use the comics)

Seven Billion

[disclaimer: this post appears just days after some friends of mine announce their pregnancy; this is a complete coincidence (this post was written and scheduled some time ago) and of course I’m delighted for the new parents-to-be]

In October, the world population is expected to reach seven billion. Seven fucking billion. I remember being a child and the media reports around the time that we hit five billion: that was in the late 1980s. When my parents were growing up, we hadn’t even hit three billion. For the first nine or ten thousand years of human civilisation between the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, the world population was consistently below a billion. Let’s visualise that for a moment:

World population for the last 12,000 years.

How big is our island?

Am I the only one who gets really bothered by graphs that look like this? Does it not cause alarm?

We have runaway population growth and finite natural resources. Those two things can’t coexist together forever. Let’s have a look at another graph:

Reindeer population on St. Matthew Island, from the comic of the same name.

This one is taken from a wonderful comic called St. Matthew Island, about the real island. It charts the population explosion of a herd of reindeer introduced to the island in the 1940s and then left to their own devices in a safe and predator-free environment. Their population ballooned until they were consuming all of their available resources. As it continued to expand, a tipping point was reached, and catastrophe struck: without sufficient food, mass starvation set in and the population crashed down from about 6,000 to only 43. By the 1980s, even these few had died out.

There are now no reindeer on St. Matthew Island. And it looks like this 40-year story could serve as a model for the larger, multi-century, world-wide population explosion that humans are having.

Game Theory

Humans are – in theory at least – smart enough to see what’s coming. If we continue to expand in this way, we risk enormous hardship (likely) and possible extinction (perhaps). Yet still the vast majority of us choose to breed, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that this is Not A Good Thing.

But even people smart enough to know better seem to continue to be procreating. And perhaps they’re right to: for most people, there is – for obvious evolutionary reasons – a biological urge to pass on one’s genes to the next generation. During a period of population explosion, the risk that your genetic material will be “drowned out” by the material of those practically unrelated to you. Sure: there might be a complete ecological collapse in 10, 100 or 1000 years… but the best way to ensure that your genes survive it is to put them into as many individuals as possible: surely some of them will make it, right? Just like buying several lottery tickets improves your chances of hitting the jackpot.

A stack of lottery tickets. If I buy enough, I’m sure to win, right?

On a political level, too, a similar application of game theory applies: if the other countries are going to have more people, then our country needs more people too! Very few countries penalise families for having multiple children (in fact, to the contrary), and those that do don’t do so very effectively. This leads to a “population arms race”, and no nation can afford to fall behind its rivals: it needs a young workforce ready to pay taxes, produce goods, pay for the upkeep of the retired… and conceive yet more children.

The same tired arguments

Mostly, though, I hear the same tired arguments for breeding [PDF]: cultural conditioning and social expectations, a desire to “pass on” a name (needless to say, I have a different idea about names than many people), a xenophobic belief that the world needs “more people like us” but “less like them”, and worry that you might regret it later (curious how few people seem to consider the reverse of this argument).

For me, the genetic problem is easy enough to fix: if your children’s genes are valuable to you because of their direct relationship (50%) to your genes, then presumably your brother’s (50%) and your niece’s (25%) are valuable to you to: more so than that of somebody on the other side of the world? I just draw the boundary in a different place – all of us humans share well over 99% of our DNA with one another anyway: we’re all one big family! We only share a lower percentage with other primates,  a lower percentage still with other mammals, and so on (although we still share quite a lot even with plants).

The similarity between you and your children is only marginally more – almost insignificantly so – than the similarity between you and every other human that has ever lived.

If you’re looking for a “family” that carries your genetic material: you’re living in one… with almost seven billion brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts! If you can expand your thinking to include the non-human animals, too, well: good for you (I can’t quite stretch that far!). But if you’re looking to help your family survive… can you expand that thinking into a loyalty to your species, instead, and make the effort to reduce population growth for the benefit of all of us?

My family tree. Have you met my great aunt baboon? Oh; sorry – that’s my sister before she brushes her hair on a morning…

The other argument I frequently see is the “replacement” argument: that it’s ethically okay for a breeding pair of humans to have exactly two children to “replace” them. This argument has (at least) three flaws:

  1. The replacement is not instantaneous. If a couple, aged 30, have 2 children, and live to age 80, then there are 50 years during which there are four humans taking up space, food, water and energy. The problem is compounded even further when we factor in the fact that life spans continue to increase. If you live longer than your parents, and your children live longer than you, then “replacement” breeding actually results in a continuous increase in total population.
  2. Even ignoring the above, “replacement” breeding strategies only actually works if they’re universal. Given that many humans will probably continue to engage super-replacement level reproduction, we’re likely to need a huge number of humans to engage in sub-replacement level or no reproduction in order to balance it out.
  3. It makes the assumption that current population levels represent a sustainable situation. That might or might not be true – various studies peg the maximum capacity for the planet at anywhere between one and a hundred billion individuals, with the majority concluding a value somewhere between four and ten billion. Given the gravity of the situation, I’d rather err on the side of caution.

Child sandwiches

“Do you not like children, then?” I’m sometimes asked, as if this were the only explanation for my notion. And recently, I’ve found a new analogy to help explain myself: children are like bacon sandwiches.

I’m sure I’m overusing this picture of a BLT.

Children are like bacon sandwiches for five major reasons:

  1. Like most (but not all) people, I like them.
  2. I’d love to have them some day.
  3. But I choose not to, principally because it would be ethically wrong.
  4. I don’t want to prevent others from having them (although I don’t encourage it either), because their freedom is more important than that they agree with me. However, I’d like everybody to carefully consider their actions.
  5. They taste best when they’re grilled until they’re just barely-crispy. Mmm.

Now of course I’ve only been refraining from bacon sandwiches for a few months: that’s why this is a new analogy to me… but I’ve felt this way about procreation for as long as I can remember.

The reasons are similar, though: I care about other humans (and, to a much lesser degree, about other living things, especially those which are “closer” family), and I’d rather not be responsible, even a little, for the kind of widespread starvation that was doubtless experienced by the reindeer of St. Matthew Island. Given the way that humans will go to war over limited resources and our capacity to cause destruction and suffering, we might even envy the reindeer – who “only” had to starve to death – before we’re done.

Environmental Awareness and Yes, I’m Still Busy

The Technium‘s just hosted a seminar on environmental awareness. Walking past the conference room a few minutes ago, I noticed that the folks running the event had managed to leave running the projector and all of the lights, despite the fact that it had ended some time ago. Ah, the irony.

Went to a céilidh at the Morlan Centre last night with Ruth (as my date and – generally – dancing partner) and Sarah (who had a few words of her own to say about the event), and had a fabulous time: lots of dancing around in complex and silly ways, forgetting which partner I’m supposed to link arms with next at any given time and eating lots of cake. Also, lots of failing to win at the tombola. I can’t remember how to make binomial theorem work, but I’m pretty sure my odds of winning at least one prize when one in five tickets is a winner, if I buy ten tickets, should be reasonable, right? If anybody else can work out the odds and explain it in a way that I’d understand, bearing in mind that I haven’t done any real maths in years, that’d be cool. I could re-learn, but I don’t have time (nor a calculator with a “P” button!).

What else? Matt P, Ele and Helen visited town, which was nice; my main desktop PC, Dualitoo, broke down in a horrible way, which wasn’t so nice; and I built a new desktop PC, Nena. All of this has been responsible for putting me back a few days further in my already cramped schedule of volunteer coding for the next month, but a meeting I had last week has re-filled me with faith that Things Will Get Less Hectic [TM]. That’s my mantra right now: I’m seriously looking forward to having more time in my life for the important stuff like video games and hanging out with people. Someday, someday.