Monday, July 25, 2011

Technological History

I'm a big technology history fan - I think it's very important to understand where technology came from to understand how and why it became integral to our daily lives - and what might happen if it goes away. Here's a brief history of pneumatic tube systems:

i09: A brief History of Pneumatic Tube Systems

While Slate has a good short history of air conditioning:

Attempts to control indoor temperatures began in ancient Rome, where wealthy citizens took advantage of the remarkable aqueduct system to circulate cool water through the walls of their homes. The emperor Elagabalus took things a step further in the third century, building a mountain of snow—imported from the mountains via donkey trains—in the garden next to his villa to keep cool during the summer. Marvelously inefficient, the effort presaged the spare-no-cost attitude behind our modern-day central air-conditioning systems. Even back then some scoffed at the concept of fighting heat with newfangled technologies. Seneca, the stoic philosopher, mocked the "skinny youths" who ate snow to keep cool rather than simply bearing the heat like a real Roman ought to.

Such luxuries disappeared during the Dark Ages, and large-scale air-conditioning efforts didn't resurface in the West until the 1800s, when well-funded American engineers began to tackle the problem. In the intervening centuries, fans were the coolant of choice. Hand fans were used in China as early as 3,000 years ago, and a second-century Chinese inventor has been credited with building the first room-sized rotary fan (it was powered by hand). Architecture also played a major role in pre-modern temperature control. In traditional Middle Eastern construction, windows faced away from the sun, and larger buildings featured "wind towers" designed to catch and circulate the prevailing breezes.

In late 19th-century America, engineers had the money and the ambition to pick up where the Romans had left off. In 1881, a dying President James Garfield got a respite from Washington, D.C.'s oppressive summer swelter thanks to an awkward device involving air blown through cotton sheets doused in ice water. Like Elagabalus before him, Garfield's comfort required enormous energy consumption; his caretakers reportedly went through half a million pounds of ice in two months.

The big breakthrough, of course, was electricity. Nikola Tesla's development of alternating current motors made possible the invention of oscillating fans in the early 20th century. And in 1902, a 25-year-old engineer from New York named Willis Carrier invented the first modern air-conditioning system. The mechanical unit, which sent air through water-cooled coils, was not aimed at human comfort, however; it was designed to control humidity in the printing plant where he worked. In 1922, he followed up with the invention of the centrifugal chiller, which added a central compressor to reduce the unit's size. It was introduced to the public on Memorial Day weekend, 1925, when it debuted at the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. For years afterward, people piled into air-conditioned movie theaters on hot summer days, giving rise to the summer blockbuster.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Carrier's innovation shaped 20th-century America. In the 1930s, air conditioning spread to department stores, rail cars, and offices, sending workers' summer productivity soaring. Until then, central courtyards and wide-open windows had offered the only relief. Residential air conditioning was slower to take hold: As late as 1965, just 10 percent of U.S. homes had it, according to the Carrier Corporation. Families in the South made do by sleeping on the porch or even putting their underwear in the icebox. By 2007, however, the number was 86 percent. As cool air spread across the country, Sun Belt cities that had been unbearable in the summer became more attractive places to live and work, facilitating a long-term shift in U.S. population.

Slate: A history of air conditioning

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Common Story

A Story from the Recession
Quitter: A Story from the Recession via - Sharing by Design

Jeffrey Sachs is Shrill

The stimulus legislation, pushed by Obama at the start of his term on the basis of antiquated economic theories, wasted the public's money and also did something much worse. It discredited the vital role of public spending in solving real and long-term problems. Rather than thinking ahead and planning for long-term solutions, he simply spent money on short-term schemes.

Obama's embrace of "shovel-ready" infrastructure, for example, left America with an economy based on shovels while China's long-term strategy has given that country an economy based on 21st-century Maglev trains. Now that the resort to mega-deficits has run its course, Obama is on the verge of abandoning the poor and middle class, by agreeing with the plutocrats in Congress to cut spending on Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and discretionary civilian spending, while protecting the military and the low tax rates on the rich (if not lowering those top tax rates further according to the secret machinations of the Gang of Six, now endorsed by the president!)

Who runs America today? The rich and the multinational corporations. Who runs the White House? David Plouffe, whose job it is to make sure that ever word, every action of the president is calculated for electoral gain rather than the country's needs. Who runs the Congress, on both sides of the aisle? The lobbyists, who win in every negotiation. And who loses? The American people, who have said repeatedly that they want a budget that sharply cuts the military, ends the wars, raises taxes on the rich, protects the poor and the middle class, and invests in America's future not just in Obama's speeches but in fact.

America needs a third-party movement to break the hammerlock of the financial elites. Until that happens, the political class and the media conglomerates will continue to spew lies, American militarism will continue to destabilize a growing swath of the world, and the country will continue its economic decline.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Guerilla Gardening

Up he comes from the underground into the soulless square, takes out his trowel and digs and gouges between the cracks of the paving stones and plants the shoots - a line of green in the grey of the granite.

Potsdamer Platz today is a long way from what it once was - the pulsating heart of Weimar Berlin, the city's hub of charm and cafe society.

It was where the tram routes met, where the literati met and, no doubt, the not-so-literati. It was the place of chatter and deals and morning-after-the-night-before coffee.

Today, it is, I think, a pretty soulless place.

It was devastated in the war and left desolate after it - split down the middle by the Berlin Wall. On the wasteland freed for development by the Wall's demolition has arisen the cold glass of the Sony Centre, with its windy canyons of offices.

A new sort of desolation, you might think. Until that is, Petrus arrives with his gardening tools.

Petrus Akkordeon, you see, is a guerrilla gardener. He told me he does it to make people happier.

"Everything is grey," he says. "No flowers. No trees. And if you plant one flower, the whole place changes."

"For several seconds, it's a nice place. People see these flowers and feel better for a moment. There's a man planting on Potsdamer Platz, he must be crazy," he says, describing himself, of course.

Fascinating post about people marching to a different drum in Berlin:

Wikipedia on Guerilla Gardening -->
Seed bombing -->

By coincidence, Charles Hugh Smith's post today is on gardening as an antidote to derealization: I Dig Dirt.

And I myself am about to prepare a stir fry with my garden-grown collard greens for dinner. Bon appetit!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Great Quote

In a great post over at Decline of the Empire, Dave Cohen takes a look at the real significance of the debt ceiling debate. In it, he uses one of Dmitry Orlov's best quotes, one with which I have to wholeheartedly agree:

"Although people often bemoan political apathy as if it were a grave social ill, it seems to me that this is just as it should be. Why should essentially powerless people want to engage in a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those who wield the power?"

If you're familiar with Dmitry's work (and you should be), you know that he embraces that uniquely Russian fatalism, and applies it to the United States, which is why I think his opinions are so valuable. I've long said that the United States has essentially become a parallel Soviet Union - a police state run by an out-of-touch oligarchy that is completely seperate from the people they are supposed to govern. Like them, we have an economic system that is failing for an ever-larger amount of people, and requires ever more draconian measures to force people to "buy in" - from criminalizing poverty, to denying health care to the jobless, to overt propaganda outlets like FOX news. I touched a bit on this in Police State America. Most significantly, we have abandoned pragmatism in place of a strict economic ideology - low taxes on wealth, a weak state, and no form of collectivism whatsover. Just like Marxism, in the real world it is failing our citizens, yet this orthodoxy is never questioned. Instead of reading our copy of Marx's writings and the sayings of Lenin, Americans now brandish Hayek and quote Ayn Rand. This quote sums it up nicely:

...libertarianism is basically the Marxism of the Right. If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism. Society in fact requires both individualism and collectivism, both selfishness and altruism, to function.

I've wanted to write on this at length, but today is not the day. But I did want to share that quote. Once we realize that we are powerless to change the system, we can start directing our energies elsewhere, to hopefully more productive ends.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Good Comment

About this story

If execs really don't know the day-to-day details about how their global corporations work, why is it that they're compensated so well for whatever it is they DO know about?

and also:

Giant cartels calling themselves corporations have gotten so big and have so many moving parts that you cannot prosecute the people at the top, as they can claim ignorance of the actions of their underlings. If you check out the testimonies of everyone in a Congressional hearing in the US for the past, say, 10 years (including people like Goldman Sachs), you'll find that "I don't recall" or "I wasn't in charge of that" is the get out of jail free card.
This will be solved, sooner or later. Probably when the pitchforks come out in the second recession that is quickly heading our way.

and this:

Welcome to modern capitalism.
If you lose money or get in trouble you are not responsible. In fact you may get a bonus! Feel free to lay off workers too.
If you make money then you get the lion's share and the workers just get an email (if they are lucky) saying "good job". Celebrate by moving a plant to a cheaper country but your job will stay right here.
You are not responsible for bad things, the buck doesn't stop with you. The US President is held responsible for everything but the CEO of a major company isn't. Continue to claim though that business people are inherently more skilled and morally better than government people at running things.

Limited posting while I cool off. <sarcasm>I'm so glad big business and Republicans have assured us that global warming is a socialist conspiracy. Maybe the socialists control the weather.</sarcasm>

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

This is appropriate with a heat wave coming up:

How the Air Conditioner Made Modern America via the Atlantic

Air Conditioning: Our Cross to Bear via Alternet

The Deluded World of Air Conditioning via Slate

Thank goodness for air conditioning. To keep old folks alive, cities from Washington to Los Angeles are opening artificially cooled buildings to the public. Meanwhile, people are lining up to buy window units. According to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, shipments of air conditioners and heat pumps have tripled over the last three decades. The percentage of single-family homes built with central air has gone from 36 to 87. The percentage of cars built with air conditioning has risen from 61 to 98. In 1970, only 42 percent of occupied mobile homes had it. By 2003, that percentage had more than doubled.

It's a heartwarming—or, more precisely, a heart-cooling—story. Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. Air conditioning takes indoor heat and pushes it outdoors. To do this, it uses energy, which increases production of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere. From a cooling standpoint, the first transaction is a wash, and the second is a loss. We're cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that's still habitable.

All over the country, power consumption is breaking records, and air conditioning is a huge reason why. We use about one-sixth of our electricity to cool ourselves. That's more than the total electricity consumption of India, a country whose population exceeds 1 billion. To get the electricity, we burn oil and coal. We also run air conditioners in our cars, which reduces urban fuel efficiency by up to four miles per gallon, at an annual cost of 7 billion gallons of gasoline.

The War Against Air Conditioning

In the last half century, air conditioning has joined fireworks, swimming pools and charred hamburgers as a ubiquitous ingredient of an American summer. It’s no exaggeration to say it has changed the way this country functions, shaping everything from where we’re willing to live (Las Vegas, anyone?) to the amount of sex we have (more: It’s never too hot to get it on when the A.C. is blasting). Nine out of 10 new homes in this country are built with central air conditioning, and Americans now use as much electricity to power our A.C. as the entire continent of Africa uses for, well, everything. It has so thoroughly scrambled our way of life that when the National Academy of Engineering chose its 20 greatest engineering accomplishments of the last century, A.C. not only made the list, it clocked in ahead of spacecraft, highways and even the Internet.

But as science writer Stan Cox argues in his new book, “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer),” the dizzying rise of air conditioning comes at a steep personal and societal price. We stay inside longer, exercise less, and get sick more often — and the electricity used to power all that A.C. is helping push the fast-forward button on global warming. The invention has also changed American politics: Love it or hate it, refrigerated cooling has been a major boon to the Republican Party. The advent of A.C. helped launch the massive Southern and Western population growth that’s transformed our electoral map in the last half century. Cox navigates all of these scientific and social angles with relative ease, providing a clear explanation of how A.C. made the leap from luxury to necessity in the United States and examining how we can learn to manage the addiction before we refrigerate ourselves into the apocalypse.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Parable of the Mexican Fisherman

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, "only a little while."

The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.

The American then asked, "but what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, how long will this all take?"

To which the American replied, "15 - 20 years."

"But what then?" Asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!"

"Millions - then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Why Your Stitches Cost $1,500 - Part Two
Via: Medical Billing And Coding

Modern Times in Korea

Once again we can see the results when our 'superior' western materialistic lifestyle is imported into another country - massive deterioration in the mental health of the population, even as we're told how much better off they are by politicians and economists because they are now "richer" than they were before. Our witches' brew of hypercompetitiveness, creature comforts, novelty, overstimulation, advertising, productivism, self-centeredness and instant gratification tends to destroy well-being wherver it is embraced, in this case, South Korea:

SEOUL — It can sometimes feel as if South Korea, overworked, overstressed and ever anxious, is on the verge of a national nervous breakdown, with a rising divorce rate, students who feel suffocated by academic pressures, a suicide rate among the highest in the world and a macho corporate culture that still encourages blackout drinking sessions after work.

More than 30 South Koreans kill themselves every day, and the suicides of entertainers, politicians, athletes and business leaders have become almost commonplace. The recent suicides of four students and a professor at Korea’s leading university shocked the nation, and in recent weeks a TV baseball announcer, two professional soccer players, a university president and the former lead singer in a popular boy band killed themselves.

Meanwhile, the suicide rate in South Korea is nothing short of alarming, nearly three times higher than in the United States. The rate here doubled in the decade between 1999 and 2009. Suicide pacts among strangers who meet online is a growing phenomenon. Suicides by drinking pesticides, hanging or jumping from tall buildings are the most common.

Some experts trace South Korea’s emotional malaise to the decline of these traditional values and the rise of the country as a modern industrial power, starting in the 1980s. South Korea, once even poorer than woeful North Korea, now boasts the world’s 13th-largest economy.

As the society became more oriented toward materialism, people started to compare themselves,” said Dr. Park. “There’s a lot of competition now, even starting in childhood, and the goals of life have moved. We have a saying, ‘If one cousin buys land, the other cousin gets a stomachache.”’

Young people in South Korea are certainly unhappy, even chronically so, in part because of ferocious academic pressures that begin early on. A recent survey here found that young Koreans — for the third straight year — were the unhappiest youngsters in a subset of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

“Koreans are trying to find their own ‘package,’ their own set of remedies — and they’re doing this very intensely, of course,” said Dr. Oh, the Yonsei professor. “They are desperately searching for things to do to divert themselves from stress. They just don’t have a good model.”

Of course, North Korea is an even worse place to live. Can we not find a middle ground - a society of prosperity where that prosperity is centered around human needs rather than the needs of capital? This is the core theme running throughout nearly all of Lewis Mumford's writings, and I think the question is becoming ever more urgent as capitalism is starting to fail worldwide.

On a tangential but related note, here are some intereting points about Luddism:

This odd relationship between human beings and technology was first recognized by English craftsmen in the early 1800s. They objected to the new factories going up in their villages because they feared losing their independence, their community life, and their livelihood. Scorned as backward and anti-progress, the Luddites, who got their name from their made-up folk hero, King Ned Ludd, eventually stopped trying to engage discussion and took out their rage on the weaving frames. A few of them were led away to the gallows for trespassing and vandalizing private property. And so ended the movement.

Curiously, however, Fox notes that the Luddites’ legacy lived on through writers, artists, philosophers, farmers, and iconoclasts who noticed that for all its promises of convenience and efficiency, technology still sidesteps “the complexity and subtlety that is humanness.” Throughout the book she illustrates how technology has shaped the way people live, think, work, and relate to each other today.

The Luddites, Fox emphasizes, didn't shun machines or technology out of hand. Instead, they “[favored] a thoughtful use of appropriate technologies that [did] not damage the relationships we hold dear,” especially those with the natural world. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, American technology and industrialism become tied to capitalism and consumerism in which “all life was being bought and sold,” according to historian E.P. Thompson.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Don't Cry for Me Argentina

What collapse looks like...

Marcela Ricca lives in a small agricultural town west of Buenos Aires which is now reaping the financial benefits of the boom in soya production.

But 10 years ago, she says, many people only survived thanks to government work programmes and by setting up their own networks of barter, known as Redes de Trueque.

"You'd offer whatever you had," remembers Marcela. "You might repair a washing machine and get six eggs for it. Or do somebody's accounts and they'd fix your car."

The scheme engendered great solidarity and only fell apart when the political parties hijacked it, Marcela says.

"I want my dollars back": Many Argentines saw their lives turned upside down She also remembers the proliferation of alternative currencies in circulation.

The devaluation of the peso meant there were not enough bank notes to meet demand so some provincial governments printed their own.

The most widespread was the Patacon which was printed by the Buenos Aires provincial government.
Retailers would post signs on their shop windows advising shoppers which currencies they accepted.

Employees would arrive at work to find the gates padlocked and that the owners had fled, often stripping the workplace of anything they could sell.

With no alternative, some took control of the premises and set up workers' co-operatives, many of which survive and flourish today.

The most high profile is the Bauen hotel, formerly owned by the Argentine military, in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires.

The workers hold regular meetings, the management rotates and the chambermaids and waiters all have an equal say in the running of the business.

There are also glass and confectionary producers, shoemakers, balloon manufacturers and more.

They work with one another in a framework forged during their formative years but now operate, some more successfully than others, within the more traditional, capitalist system.

The Bauen hotel, for instance, is in a constant legal battle with the original owners who fled when times were tough but now want to recuperate a prime site in the heart of the bustling city.

Mr MacDougall says the biggest losers in the crisis, who have still not fully recovered, were the main political parties which lost their way and became fragmented, and the lower-middle classes who often lost everything.

Argentina's economic recovery has been helped by high commodity prices A popular story circulating at the time of the crisis was that one of the bigger shanty towns in Buenos Aires put up a large sign reading "Welcome to the Middle Classes".

Friday, July 8, 2011

Police State America

When police cars, lightbars on, pulled up outside her house in the middle of the night, a Rochester woman began filming the traffic stop from her front yard. She was arrested and taken to jail by a police officer who first said she was "anti-police," then claimed to feel "threatened" by her; and ultimately told her that he didn't have to explain himself at all. Her arrest, which required the officer to enter her property without permission, was on a charge of "obstructing government administration." [Indymedia]


Members of the organization Food Not Bombs were in good spirits as they passed out corn on the cob, rice, beans and other vegetarian dishes to the homeless and hungry in an Orlando park. This cheer was interrupted when police officers on bicycles arrived and arrested five of the volunteers.

This is not the first time this scene has played out for members of Food Not Bombs.

Since June 1, a dozen members of the group have been arrested for violating a new Orlando city ordinance that prohibits sharing food with large groups in downtown parks more than twice a year.

The mayor of Orlando even branded them "food terrorists."

Julie Bass of Oak Park, Michigan -- a mother of 6, law-abiding citizen, and gardener -- is facing 93 days in jail after being charged with a misdemeanor.

Her crime? Planting a vegetable garden in the front yard.

Bass says that she planted the garden after her front yard was torn up for some sewer repairs. Rather than wasting the opportunity to start with a clean slate by planting a lawn, she decided to really put the area to use, and plant a vegetable garden.

Her garden consists of 5 raised beds, where she grows a mix of squashes, corn, tomatoes, flowers, and other veggies. Bass received a warning from the city telling her to remove the vegetable garden, because it doesn't adhere to city ordinances (more on that later.) When she refused, she was ticketed and charged with a misdemeanor. Her trial, before a jury, is set to begin on July 26th. If she is found guilty, she can be sentenced to up to 93 days in jail.

Normally I don't like to just include isolated anecdotes as proof of anything, but this seems to be a rising trend.

Aren't you glad America is all about "Freedom?"

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

North Dakota's Got It Going On.

Not only are they the only state with a publicly owned bank, now they are taking up victory gardening to help feed the hungry. Let's hope both of these ideas spread! From BBC News:

Aided by its recent oil boom, North Dakota has weathered the recession better than many other states. But government officials say one in 11 of the population does not have enough to eat. Many of these people are children.

In response, the state is promoting the Hunger Free North Dakota Garden Project, urging farmers and gardeners to grow and donate fruit and vegetables to food pantries and community programmes.

"Over 95% of our land is given over to fields, ranches, crops and animal production," says Karen Ehrens, a dietician and consultant to North Dakota's Department of Agriculture, which is helping to co-ordinate the project.

"And even here in our own state there were people not getting enough to eat, which was a great irony."

The scheme is in its second year. In 2011 it brought in 350,000lb (160,000kg) of fresh produce. This year, the target is 500,000lb.

The race to produce is infectious.

"It's becoming kind of a challenge between two of us sets of husbands and wives," says retired office supplies store owner Bob Schauer, as he and his wife Donna water seedlings on municipal ground in downtown Bismarck, the state capital.

The Schauers donated 350lb of produce last year but are now tending three plots, each measuring 20ft by 20ft (6m by 6m), and so hope to triple their record.

A hard winter and a long, wet spring have caused delays, but the they rattle off an impressive list of some 25 different fruits and vegetables they have in the ground, including cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes and corn.

The city provides the plots and the water. Participants do the rest.

"It's up to you to furnish the seed, to maintain the garden, to water it, to weed it, to care for it," says Donna. "Then to reap the harvest and distribute it among the many charities that are on the list."

At a nearby plot, children are busy checking for weeds and bugs. Many of the plots are sporting brightly-coloured signs announcing "I'm growing a hunger free North Dakota garden."

Once harvested, some of the food grown will be used by charities feeding those in need At the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, a food pantry and homeless shelter on Broadway Avenue, executive director Susan Martin says the arrival of fresh produce at harvest time is a welcome addition to the canned and packaged goods that make up the bulk of donations.

For the residents, it can seem almost miraculous.

"Last summer we had a lady bring in fresh strawberries," she says. "And they were just delighted because they hadn't had fresh strawberries for years."
North Dakota Feeding the Hungry in a Land of Plenty

Nice to hear some good news for a change.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Crazy Makers

Morris Berman has a blog called Dark Ages America, where he occasionally poses some interesting thoughts. I don't know much about him, except that he is some sort of dissident academic and poet who moved out of the US to Mexico. He has a thought-provoking post on his blog:

Fork in The Road

He begins the post by discussing the theory that one of the causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire was lead poisoning caused by the lead in pipes they used for water (lead was called plumbum by the Romans, hence our word plumbing and the chemical symbol for lead, Pb). As he points out, there is little credence among scholars of Rome for this theory. To skip ahead a bit, one commenter pointed out something I had never heard before, but as a Roman history enthusiast I found fascinating - it was not the plumbing that was the major source of lead in the Roman diet:

On the one hand, the Romans really did poison themselves with lead. Lead acetate. Sugar cane was unknown in the Roman Empire, as were sugar beets and most other moden sources of sweetening. Other than honey, which was fairly rare and expensive for them, they favored a sweetener called defrutum ( made by boiling down grape juice in lead pots. It was very important NOT to use copper or other metals. These made the syrup taste metallic and unpleasant. (Stainless steel was beyond the Romans, and apparently ceramic pots were impractical.) Only a lead pot produced the desired sweet tasting syrup. Lead acetate itself actually has a sweet taste. The alchemists called it "sugar of lead". The poisonous effects of lead being unknown, the Romans thought they had a 'scientific breakthrough' as we would say today. This lead-laced sweetened was used to sweeten all sorts of foods, and even helped them preserve their wines longer, saving time and money. (Which as just as important to the Roman ruling class as to the American ruling class...) Read the note in the wiki article about incredible lead levels in a historically reproduced batch of defrutum. That must have contributed in some way to the over-all decline of the Roman Empire.

As a total digression, there has been speculation that the removal or lead from paints and gasoline has been behind the recent drop in crime rates. Apparently, hight level of lead in the brain impair the ability to think long term and lead to increased levels of violence. As yet another digression from the digression, it's ironic that our own consumption of sugar (including HFCS) is destroying our health too, except through obesity and diabetes rather than lead poisoning. A book I read long ago called The Crazy Makers argued that the lack of decent nutrition in our diets prevents our brains from forming properly. It seems the unrestrained appetitites of successful empires help bring about their downfall.

Anyway, the post gets really interesting when he discusses how staring at screens all day may literally be altering our brain chemistry:

I was thinking about this in the context of mounting evidence that in a mechanical-material way, Americans may also be destroying their brains. It now turns out that constant cell phone use may be a cause of tumors in the brain, although the evidence is not definitive at this point. More definitive is the neurological fallout from the use of screens—TV, Internet, e-books, text messaging—along with the phenomenon of multitasking that typically accompanies this. Here the pile-up of data is quite large, collected in articles that have appeared over the last decade in journals such as Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and the New Atlantis, and discussed at length in Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. (In particular see studies by Walter Kirn, Christine Rosen, and Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University.) Persistent staring into screens, it turns out, changes the brain, and not in positive directions. Constant screen use seems to have an effect similar to constant marijuana use. It should thus not be too much of a surprise that concomitant with the so-called information revolution has been a dumbing down of the American population, although obviously there are other factors involved (the commodification of education, e.g.). But unlike the Roman fork, which is highly debatable, this material factor is quite certain.

Scary stuff. He then goes on to discuss the widespread use of anti-psychotic drugs and antidepressants, and wonders if we may be destroying our brains like the hypothetical ancient Romans:
It was found that psychoactive drugs affect neurotransmitter levels in the brain, and from this it was concluded that “the cause of mental illness is an abnormality in the brain’s concentration of these chemicals that is specifically countered by the use of the appropriate drug.” As Daniel Carlat notes, by the same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain is a deficiency of opiates, or that headaches are caused by having too little aspirin in one’s system. The logic, in short, is upside down; and as far as the empirical evidence goes—there is none.

It turns out that a lot of the decisions regarding what to include as a mental illness have been arbitrary, even whimsical. George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote in 1984 that the book represented “a bold series of choices based on guess, taste, prejudice, and hope.” In fact, there are no citations of scientific studies in the DSM to support its decisions--! The actual “science” of the book is thus dubious. Coming back to the economic factor, it turns out that drug companies lavish huge attention and largesse on psychiatrists—gifts, free samples, meals, plane tickets to conferences, and jobs as consultants and speakers. Of the 170contributors to the current version of the book, the DSM-IV-TR, 95 of them have financial ties to drug companies, including all of the contributors to the sections on mood disorders and schizophrenia.

The reason for all this? What else, corporate profits. He concludes:
Apparently, then, we have our own leaden forks, to the extent that lead may have attacked the Roman nervous system. It’s the result of a number of factors, including the American worship of technology, the search for simple (and individualistic) answers, and a lust for profits that is so huge that Lilly and all the rest couldn’t care less as to whether they are harming the American public. Nor is it very likely that any of the literature on cell phone cancer, neurological damage from screen usage, iatrogenic mental illness (i.e. illness that is doctor-generated, or Big Pharma-generated), will make any difference at all.

Not long ago I read an interesting perpective on the medical industry by fitness model Christine Lydon, who was in medical school prior to becoming a model and actress:

I quickly learned that most people who suffered from serious medical conditions would never be "as good as new," that treatable almost never meant curable, and that drug side effects could be just as devastating as the illnesses they were intended to alleviate. Moreover, I was appalled by the alarming degree to which the pharmaceutical industry shaped my medical education. By pouring billions of dollars every year into drug research, pharmaceutical companies subsidize the education of every physician who graduates from an American medical school. The upshot of this arrangement is a medical system that places inordinate emphasis on disease treatment without the slightest attention to disease prevention. And as a result, most doctors are shockingly ignorant about the most fundamental aspects of healthy living.

The hypocrisy of healthcare hit me hardest when I was a surgical resident. During my albeit brief tenure as an orthopaedic intern, I spent over one hundred hours per week within the dreary confines of County Hospital. In my profound state of sleep deprivation, things like regular exercise and healthy eating quickly fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, the only reliably palatable items dispensed by the hospital cafeteria were baked goods. Dessert became the main source of pleasure in my life.

As someone who has always reveled in the joys of the outdoors and physical activity, as someone who needs regular exercise, healthy foods, and adequate sleep to feel sane, I have never been more miserable. As the months passed, I found it increasingly impossible to reconcile the fact that my chosen profession, that of a "healer," required me to adhere to a schedule that was destroying my own health and well being. And for what? I found myself wondering. After all, many of my patients would return to a life that had been permanently altered by their illness or injury; things would never be the same for them. My entire existence began to feel like an ironic exercise in futility.

After devoting a decade of my existence and six figures in student loans to becoming a physician, all I had to show for it was endless frustration, overwhelming exhaustion, a rapidly expanding rear end, a bleeding ulcer, and utter disenchantment toward my chosen profession. I took a step back and tried to remember what had drawn me to medicine in the first place. I realized that more than the promise of a fat paycheck, more than the prestige, more than my parents' approval, more than anything else, I had once dreamed of being a doctor because I felt a sincere desire to make a difference in people's lives. So, I did the only thing that seemed to make any sense at the time and I quit my residency. It was the toughest, and BEST decision I ever made. Since that fateful day in October of 1994 when I bade farewell to County General, I've made it my life's work to educate people about healthy eating, efficient exercising, disease prevention, and non-pharmaceutical alternatives for increasing longevity. Many of my fundamental beliefs about good health fly in the face of the western medical establishment, contradicting the conventional wisdom embraced by physicians who have been lulled into complacence by the monumental influence of the pharmaceutical industry. An unfortunate number of American doctors are openly hostile to any therapeutic practice which does not involve a prescription pad or an operating room. The very notion of disease prevention has been systematically wiped from their collective consciousness. Even the most progressive health care providers are shockingly ignorant when it comes to the basics of healthy living. It's not their fault-- they've been brainwashed into thinking that they are health experts, when in actuality they are disease experts.

Listen to a BBC expose on "America's Drug Culture":

Hugh, aged 10, appears basically normal - a dark-haired kid who goes to a mainstream school and speaks and interacts well, albeit sometimes in a slightly aloof and off-hand way. Yet he has been diagnosed with a range of mental disorders and put on a battery of medications.

He takes Adderall for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Tenex for impulsiveness. And for his bipolar disorder he is on a heavy dose of a powerful anti-psychotic called Seroquel - in an "off-label" prescription, meaning it hasn't been tested on children.

"It's very troubling," Hugh's mother Barbro told me when I asked about his reliance on the medication. "The problem with it is, if you continue not to medicate with something for bipolar disorder in a child, the highs and the lows, the cycles get worse and worse."

But here's the best part:

Barbro and her husband Bob had been kind enough to put me up for part of my stay, as a way of getting to know a family with a medicated child and experiencing some of his behaviour.

The family, judged by British standards, seemed surprisingly open to the concept of psychoactive medication. Hugh's mother was on an anti-depressant, Prozac. Bob took something called Neurontin for a bipolar condition he says he "may or may not have".

Even the dog was being fed Clomipramine, an anti-anxiety pill.

BBC News: Louis Theroux Looks At America's Presription Culture

In an interview, a noted scientist wondered if children's brains may be being rewired. Note that professor Greenfield is not some crank, but on of Britain's most repected neuroscientists:

Professor Greenfield has spent a lifetime researching the physiology of the brain, and now thinks that there could be a link between the attention span of children and the growing use of computers.

In an interview for Radio 4's iPM she said: "The last 10 years have seen a three-fold increase in the prescription of the drug Ritalin, a drug used for Attention Deficit Disorder. One asks why?

"Why suddenly is there greater demand for a drug for attentional problems?" she asked. "This might, and I stress might, be something to do with the increased exposure of young children to unsupervised and lengthy hours in front of a screen." The technology is creating an environment that is answer rich, but we're question poor

Baroness Greenfield wondered if the cause was growing computer use.

"Could it be, and this is just a suggestion which I think we should look into, could it be if a small child is sitting in front of a screen pressing buttons and getting reactions quickly for many hours, they get used to and their brains get used to rapid responses?" she said.

If children do not have stories read to them and have little practice of concentrating for long periods this could effect how they handle the sedate pace of school life, said Baroness Greenfield.

She asked: "Could it be that they then have to sit still for half an hour and of course they're not used to that because they're used to the rapid interaction with the screen, and could it - again a question - be that they are fidgety and hyperactive and then diagnosed as having a disorder?"

The brain, says the distinguished neuroscientist, changes all the time - but it is very sensitive to the environment its in, and so it might be affected by the continual use of computers.

"What we need to question is this: are we putting people into the optimum environment? How can we create an environment which will pre-dispose the brain to react in ways we consider ideal?" she said.

"The technology is creating an environment that is answer rich, but we're question poor."

BBCNews: Is Computer Use Changing Children?

I think they are on to something with that screen explanation - the rates of depression rising do seem to correlate with increasing time spent in front of a computer screen. A sophisticated case for this was made in the excellent Four Agruments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, one of the most influential books I've ever read. Of course correlation does not equal causation, but where there's smoke there's often fire. Clearly there must be some factor at work here-rising levels of depression are telling us something. I've read that depression is really a natural symptom that tells you that something is wrong and something needs to change. In essence, it is a defense machanism, not an illness at all. Thus the epidemic levels of depression among the general populaton are telling us that something is seriously wrong in society and that it needs to change. Instead, the pharmeceutal industry is masking the symptoms and making this sick society go on rather than allow us to do what needs to be done-make the change to a healthier society from a mental standpoint. Regarding what's wrong with society, I think this comment answers that wonderfully:

Are you familiar with a book called "The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health" by John F. Schumaker. In it the author writes that since the 1950's the rates of deppression have increased by a factor of 10. Also, the rates of suicide and anxiety have also skyrocketed. What this suggests is that these people are not crazy, but the society in which they live in is crazy. Some of the characteristics that the author lists as causing this are "commodification, consumerism, social marginality, technological encroachment, amplified organizational power, homogenized drives and tastes, deregulation of volition and emotion, ambiguity, fragmentation, impaired social memory, banality, the replacement of reality by images and fantasy, incapacity for emotional commitment and empathy, detachment from the past and present, affectional allegiance to technology, material ambitions that take precedence over social and environmental concerns, a commercial view of justice, hypercompetition, compulsive buying, boredom, narcissism, conformity, corporate domination of culture, dumbing down of media and culture, dehumanization, anomie, ecological sociopathy, radical individualism, meaninglessness, etc. Reading this book confirmed for me much of what I sort of intuitively felt but was unable to articulate in my mind in precise terms. I highly recommend it.

Let's not forget the role of advertising plays - people happy with themselves and their lives do not buy products. The goal of advertising is to make you feel bad about yourself and your life so that you will buy products to "improve" yourself or your emotional situation. to that end, you are constantly shown images of the perfect life - beautiful, smiling happy people in unattainable situations. It's no wonder people are so disappointed with reality and expecting more. Add to that the fabulous lifestyles of the rich and famous that are constantly fed to us in TV and magazines.

What it all adds up to is this - based on what we know about human psychology, if you were to intentionally design an environment to make human primates feel depressed and go insane, you could not do a better job that the modern post-industrial consumer economy that we live in America. No wonder we need to pop pills just to make it through the day.