Guardian, on Labour’s Suicide Mission

It’s been widely reported that the Labour Party have been engaged in some succession planning, in preparation for Corbyn’s departure.

The Guardian notes

Corbyn’s champions always blame a supposed “Blairite” fifth column for his travails. But it is the left of the party itself that is now plotting against him most systematically. In December, Ken Livingstone told the BBC’s Sunday Politics: “If it’s as bad as this in a year’s time, we would all be worried.” In the Mirror last month, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, asked pointedly: “What happens if we get to 2019 and opinion polls are still awful?”

Source: The Guardian

and

Replace the captain, in other words, but maintain course towards the iceberg.

South Africa: Zuma’s Approval at Rock Bottom

Last week, scenes of disruption in South Africa’s parliament were shown on TV screens worldwide, as EFF opposition MP’s maintained a barrage of interruptions to show their disapproval, and belief that his hold on the office no longer has any legitimacy.

Many, perhaps most, South Africans would agree. The latest opinion poll from Ipsos for eNCA shows his approval rating at only 4.0, equalling the lowest it has ever been.

Continue reading “South Africa: Zuma’s Approval at Rock Bottom”

That was the year, that was (Good Riddance!)

It’s been a momentous, difficult year. No, it’s not “New Year”, the traditional time for these reflection, but I’m not thinking the calendar year. I’m considering the year from February to February: more specifically, the year from February 9th 2016, the day I lost my stomach. That’s a long story, which I tell elsewhere, but the process has been rather prominent in my consciousness. To that, came the anguish  first, of the Brexit vote here in the UK, continuing “Zuptagate” horror stories in South Africa concerning President Jacob Zuma and his cronies, and finally the horror of a Trump presidency in the USA. Throughout, the entire world has seen the trauma of continuing war in the Middle East, with the resultant plight of refugees and terror elsewhere.

Continue reading “That was the year, that was (Good Riddance!)”

One year on from GIST surgery: (1) Diagnosis and early treatment

A year ago today, I checked in to the Royal Free Hospital Hampstead to have a stomach GIST removed, and with it, the whole of my stomach and spleen: time now to look back, on the year since – and before.

It all began some eighteen months earlier, in the summer of 2014, when I began to experience what I incorrectly described as “stomach” pains – and the GP described more accurately as abdominal pain. He diagnosed a bowel complaint, diverticulosis, and prescribed antibiotics. This brought some relief, but some residual pain remained – so another course of antibiotics. After the third such attempt, he said we needed to take a closer look inside the bowels, and referred me (under the “two week rule” to a bowel specialist at Royal Surrey for a colonoscopy. I had not previously heard of a two week rule. When I looked it up later, I found that this applies whenever there is any risk of cancer. Alarm bells were ringing. The consultant agreed with the GP diagnosis, but also that we needed a test to check, just to “confirm the diagnosis”. However, instead of the colonoscopy, he recommended a CT scan, because that would show what was going on outside the bowel, as well as inside it. That decision was of major importance.

Under the two week rule, everything had moved quickly to the date of the test – and much more quickly thereafter. Continue reading “One year on from GIST surgery: (1) Diagnosis and early treatment”

One year on from GIST surgery: (2) Surgery

(Continuing from a previous post, here)

It came as a shock to me that the shrinkage had stopped. I am by nature an optimist, and after the early good response to medication, I rather assumed that this would continue indefinitely. It also didn’t help, the way the news was broken to me. Instead of being told so by a doctor in consultation, I had a phone call from the specialist nurse, who told me that the medication had “stopped working”, and that the surgeon had booked me in for a given date in September 2014. She said I should stop taking the medication In preparation for surgery, and she was booking appointments for some preparatory sessions.

I had several objections to this. The timing was awkward (I was due to be in Rome for a conference at the end of September), but more importantly, I objected strongly to such decisions being taken without any consultation. At this point for the first time, I thought seriously it might be wise finally to transfer to a specialist GIST centre. I’d been happy enough with RSCH as long as the treatment was fairly routine, and primarily about monitoring progress – but when it came to decisions about actual surgery, I wanted much more information. I wanted a second opinion. I told RSCH so, and prompted by a suggestion from Michael Sayers in our listserve group, arranged one with Dr Beatrice Seddon at University College Hospital, London.

When I met her, I was totally impressed at the thoroughness of her preparation for the meeting, how carefully she listened to my story and concerns, and the clarity and detail of her responses. I learned that it was not true that the medication had “stopped working”. It was no longer shrinking the tumour, but would still be effective in preventing regrowth. It was therefore a mistake to have stopped taking it, and I was told to resume. Based on the CT scans to date, she had called for a surgical opinion. This confirmed what I’d been told early on, that surgery would likely include removal of all or most of the stomach – and possibly also part of the pancreas and spleen.  The really difficult, delicate decision I was trying to resolve, was whether it would be wise to stay with RSCH for surgery – or should I transfer for ongoing treatment, and surgery, to a real specialist unit? My conclusion was that given the size of the tumour, at 15cm and therefore classified as still “large”, I wanted a specialist. Based on my very favourable experience of meeting her initially just for a second opinion, I then requested a formal transfer to her care. Ever since, I’ve been very pleased that I did.

One of the first things we did, was discuss a date for surgery. Unlike RSCH, she did not feel that this was urgent, provided we did not delay too long. Because it suited my schedule, we agreed on timing for some time around February. In the meantime, I would continue with 3-monthly consultations and scans. As the time approached, she called for a fuller surgical opinion, which again stated that I faced losing my stomach, pancreas and spleen – and also possibly part of the liver and diaphragm. Each surgical opinion seemed to be getting more dire!

By the time that the date came around, nearly eighteen months after I was first told that I would face such major surgery, I’d had ample time to get used to the idea. I was at least, resigned to the prospect. I checked into the Royal Free early on Tuesday 9th February. After some preliminary discussions with assorted staff, I was wheeled through for anaesthetic – and came to some hours later, thinking that if this was what it’s like without a stomach, it wasn’t any different to before. Apart from the discomfort of assorted tubes and cables hooked up to me, I was not in any particular pain – nor did I experience too much, throughout my stay in hospital.

I was in intensive care for short while. At some stage while there, I had a visit from one of my surgeons, who gave me the good news that they had taken out the stomach and spleen as expected – but nothing more. My memories of this time are blurred – one of the odder features of this recall, as that in my mind’s eye, during this discussion with the surgeon we were sitting in deck chairs on a bright green lawn: definitely not the case. After a short stay in IC, I was moved to a high – density ward instead. One of the first visits I had, was from a pain nurse, who told me not to hesitate to push the pain button whenever I wanted to, which would release pain medication from a store I was hooked up to. I’d also been advised on our listserve group, not to wait for pain to kick in before pressing the button, but to do so pre-emptively. There’s another reason this pain medication was useful. When I first used it, I experienced a strange, floating sensation. When I mentioned this to my surgeon on his second visit, he pointed out that as it is an opioid, its effects are hallucinogenic and soporific as well as just in pain relief. The “soporific” was what interested me. Apart from the discomfort of being stuck in bed with so many tubes and cables, my biggest problem was getting enough sleep at night, when we were constantly interrupted for blood pressure readings, medication and the like. I made a point, after nocturnal disturbance, to give myself a good dose of the pain medication – which quickly put me back to sleep. Just in case I was overdoing things, I checked with the pain nurse. He assured me that I was doing fine. It’s not possible to give oneself too much – the mechanism won’t allow it. He was also able to check a record of what I’d been dosing, and that turned out to be just about exactly what was recommended.

My only other continuing gripe was a permanent problem with dry mouth. I’d been expecting to have no solid food for a while after surgery, but what I was not expecting was that I’d also not be allowed anything to drink – nil by mouth. Initially, all I could get was a wet sponge to wet my lips. Later, I was allowed to take a sip of water, but had to spit it out without swallowing. I had to endure this nil by mouth routine for almost a week. When the day finally came that I was permitted something to drink, I was surprised to find that at the same time, I was allowed to eat “soft” food. Based on my reading and advice on our listserve group on life after gastrectomy, I’d expected to start out on a liquid diet, followed by smoothie type soft foods, semi-solids and then a very gradual return to proper solids. I was surprised to find on the lunch menu I was given, that the soft foods choices were far more solid than I’d expected – including a tuna/pasta bake, a bean casserole, and lasagne, which were three of my choices for two lunches and dinner.

For the first few days, I’d been confined entirely to bed, but soon enough physiotherapists began to call, helping to take short walks around the ward (with assorted tubes hooked up to a stand on wheels), and gave me a few exercises to do in bed. A week after admission, I finally had the tubes removed. Freed of all encumbrances, I found that I was able to walk easily enough around the ward, and more. The great joy at this point, was the ability to get to the toilet myself and take a proper shower.

Finally, late on Friday afternoon eight days after admission, I was discharged and was taken home, to a quiet bed without constant disturbance from nurses and other patients.

LGBT relationships are illegal in 74 countries, research finds

LGBT rights have come a long way in recent years. In 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional and the Republic of Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote following a country-wide referendum.However, while stigma against LGBT communities is certainly lessening in some countries, many states continue to criminalise same-sex sexual contact under the threat of imprisonment or even death.

New research published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) serves as a stark reminder of just how widespread such criminalisation can be. In a total of 74 countries, same-sex sexual contact is a criminal offence.

More: The Independent

Homosexuality ‘not un-African’: report undermines anti-gay laws

A step forward for equal LGBT rights in Africa. Last week, the influential Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) published a study on the science of human sexual diversity.

A comprehensive review of recent scientific papers on the subject, it concluded that sexual behaviour is naturally varied, and discrimination unjustified. It stated that there is no evidence that orientation can be altered by therapy or that being gay is contagious.

The report also sets straight the idea that homosexuality is a Western malaise: “There is no basis for the view that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ either in the sense of it being a ‘colonial import’, or on the basis that prevalence of people with same-sex or bisexual orientations is any different in African countries compared to countries on any other continent.”

Going further, the report asserted not only that tolerance of sexual diversity benefits communities but it positively affects public health, civil society and long-term economic growth.

 

More: New Scientist

Our Queer Primate Cousins

A favourite argument used by the religious right against homoerotic relationships, and by the Vatican theologians against any form of sexual expression outside of marriage and not open to making babies, is that such sexual activities are “against nature”, and that the “purpose” of sex is procreation.
Well, the people making these claims have never considered the actual evidence from , well, you know, – “Nature” itself, which shows the exact opposite. (But then, when did the Vatican, or the wingnuts, ever consider the trifling matter of evidence to interfere with their convictions?)

 

In the lively comments thread after an earlier post in this series, reader CS in AZ reminded me of a famous exchange with Anita Bryant:

This reminds me of Anita Bryant, back when she was on her anti-homosexul crusade … she said that homosexuality was unnatural and so repulsive that “even barn yard animals don’t do it” — then someone pointed out to her that barnyard animals in fact DO do that, with some frequency, as anyone who grew up around farm animals knows very well! LOL… well, she was only momentarily flustered, then she just pivoted 180 degrees and said, “well, that doesn’t make it right!”

Well no, but it sure as hell don’t make it wrong, either. On the subject of sexual ethics, “Nature” is entirely neutral. However, as so many self-righteous bigots attempt to introduce nature into ethical and political discussions, it is worth knowing just what “natural” sex really is (it’s also just fun to know.)

In all the animal kingdom, those closest to us humans are the primates, who are generally divided into three classes – apes, old world monkeys, and new world monkeys. In all three of these groups, and in other mammals, birds, reptiles, birds, fish and even insects, homosexual and non-reproductive sexual activities have been widely reported in formal scientific studies. It is striking though, as Joan Roughgarden notes in “Evolution’s Rainbow”, that these supposedly “unnatural” sexual activities have been most widely reported among the primates, and especially among the apes, who are closest to us on the evolutionary scale.
 
So, in today’s lesson from nature, I want to consider just these. What do they tell us about “natural” sexual behaviour? Do they in fact indulge in what the theologians call “sins against nature”? Do they have sex which cannot produce babies? You betcha!
In some species, same sex encounters are actually more common than heterosexual activity. Among Bonobo Chimps, the most common form of sexual activity is between females, in a unique form of genital rubbing. Some evolutionary biologists have even speculated that the particular shape of their genitals has evolved to facilitate this.(Male same sex activities are also commonplace, but not to the same extent as females).

 

For Orang-Utans, Bruce Bagemihl describes homosexual activity as “characteristic” of younger males, but less common as they age. Gorillas live in small groups, some of which are “cosexual”, with a dominant mature male, younger males, and females, and some of which are all-male. In the all-male groups, homosexual encounters occur daily, and may exceed the frequency of heterosexual encounters in the cosexual groups.

 

What about “orientation”? Can we learn anything that might contribute to the vexed essentialist / constructivist debate for human sexuality? Without getting into a formal analysis, I was interested in Bagemihl’s accounts by two features: that in many of the species he describes, most individual animals practice both same-sex and opposite-sex activities, resembling the human descriptor “bisexual” – but individuals vary in the balance between them. Some are more primarily hetero, some more homo, which reminded me inevitably of Kinsey’s well-known thesis that we all sit somewhere along a bisexual scale. The other striking feature is that in many species (found among other primates as well as the apes), there are substantial variations between specific local troops. In some species where overall, same sex activity is commonplace, there are specific troops where it is much less so – and others where it is almost mandatory, immediately prompting parallels in my mind with human ideas about the social construction of homosexuality.
What about the specific sexual activities? Are they (at least the heterosexual ones)”geared to procreation”? Hell, no. For both same-sex and between sex activities, there is an extraordinary range of activities that have been observed. For full details, read Bagemihl’s book, but in summary these include the obvious opposite-sex copulation supposedly demanded by the “plumbing”, but also a great deal more. These include fairly conventional-seeming mounting, but without penetration or ejaculation, fellatio and cunnilingus, solitary and mutual masturbation, stimulation by a finger inserted into an anus or vagina, and activities less familiar or impossible for humans: anus to anus rubbing, clitoral penetration by females, and “penile fencing” by male Bonobos – while suspended from tree branches. I also bet you can’t do this: one female was described as masturbating herself with a foot, while using her hands to do the same to her partner. Many animals also use, or even make their own, “sex toys” – dildos and other objects for insertion into available orifices, and masturbation aids from leaves and fruits.
In another notable departure from Vatican descriptions, I was also impressed by the number of species where researchers observed more displays of simple affection between same sex couples than for opposite sex couples, and more frequent incidents of violence used to force submission (i.e. “rape”) in opposite sex couples. So much for the Vatican’s dismissal of “homosexual acts” as mere gratuitous self-indulgence, to be contrasted with (heterosexual) “loving conjugal relationships”. Onlookers are also less likely to disrupt or attack homosexual interactions than heterosexual ones: “homophobic” violence is less of a problem than violence directed at opposite sex mating.
Even where sex is of the standard, male-female variety including penetration and ejaculation,it is emphatically not exclusively directed at procreation. Heterosexual intercourse often continues almost right through pregnancy, and resumes soon after birth. In some species, young females reach sexual maturity, and begin sexual intercourse, several years before reaching full maturity and fertility – a period (known as adolescent sterility)where their completely “conventional” sexual activity cannot possibly lead to pregnancy. What then, is the “purpose” of sex?
Joan Roughgarden puts it neatly, in describing “at least six” situations that lead to sex among bonobos:
  1. Sex facilitates sharing for example, reducing conflicts over food supplies)
  2. Sex is used for reconciliation after a dispute
  3. Sex helps to integrate new arrivals into a group
  4. Sex helps to form coalitions
  5. Sex is candy – females sometimes barter sexual favours to obtain gifts of food from males
  6.  “Oh, I almost forgot – sex is used for reproduction”
There’s something else she forgot – sex is fun.

 



Books:

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)
Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People
Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective