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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Diagnosing a psychopath

Some years ago, I wrote a book about a whaling captain who was a serial killer.  

It began with stumbling over a semi-literate journal in very bad shape, which had been written by the cooper of the whaleship Sharon.  It was not easy reading, being a rough daybook, revealing little despite the daily entries.  But then, suddenly, I was reading a grueling description of the young black steward being beaten to death.  By the captain.  While the rest of the crew stood by and watched.

It led to a great deal of research, involving a lot of travel and asking a lot of questions that I had never expected to be asking.  The plot thickened when I found logs of previous voyages with the same captain -- voyages in which there were unexplained deaths.  So, was this captain a serial killer?  And, if so, was he a psychopath?

How can you tell if a man or a woman is psychopathic?  I found a book called Without Conscience, written by the psychologist, Robert Hare, which contained a fascinating checklist.  

The list in full is: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of "revocation of conditional release" (ie broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.

The scary part is that most people you know display one or two of these characteristics.

Interestingly, a lot of this is echoed in an article by Tom Chivers in the New Zealand Herald, called Born to Kill?  An interview with Robert Hare reveals that he is still working away at the problem.

"Real" psychopaths score a lot more of the list, he says.

A pure, prototypical psychopath would score 40. A score of 30 or more qualifies for a diagnosis of psychopathy.
Hare says: "A friend of mine, a psychiatrist, once said: 'Bob, when I meet someone who scores 35 or 36, I know these people really are different.'
The ones we consider to be alien are the ones at the upper end."
Just in case your mind is wandering in the same direction as mine, this discussion in the newsletter of the Secular Buddhist Association will be of interest.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Life-saving medieval medicine

A hero of mine is John Woodall, who featured boldly in my story about sea surgeons on whaleships, Rough Medicine.

Born about 1570, Woodall was apprenticed to a London barber-surgeon at about the age of 16, and served in Normandy during one of the interminable wars of the time. In 1599, having been inured by then to the sight of blood and dismembered limbs, he returned to London to become a member of the Company of Barber-Surgeons, earning the right to have a red-and-white striped pole (symbolizing blood and bandages) outside his establishment.  He went to the Netherlands after that, to learn chemistry by working with an apothecary-alchemist. His adventurous and rather gory career carried him on through a plague and a voyage in the tropics, to an appointment as the Surgeon-General of the East India Company.

It was a job he held down for thirty years, and is important because (a) he was the first man to devise and stock a medical chest for surgeons at sea and (b) because he wrote the first manual in history for seafaring medics, The Surgions Mate, which was first published in 1617.

It is an odd and intriguing volume, remarkable for its kindly attitude to ailing seamen, and its very strange recipes.  It's impossible not to wince at the prospect of being dosed, for instance, with "Worme-wood Water" (absinthe, a poison), which he considered "gratefull to the stomacke," in that it "consumeth and breaketh winde mightily, killeth the wormes"  -- but, according to a marvellous paper in The Smithsonian, medieval medicine such as practised by Woodall and his contemporaries could provide a solution to modern antibiotic-resistant bugs.

"Medieval medical books could hold the recipe for new antibiotics," writes Erin Connolly.  As she goes on to say, she is "part of the Ancientbiotics team, a group of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists from multiple universities and countries. We believe that answers to the antibiotic crisis could be found in medical history. With the aid of modern technologies, we hope to unravel how premodern physicians treated infection and whether their cures really worked.

"To that end, we are compiling a database of medieval medical recipes. By revealing patterns in medieval medical practice, our database could inform future laboratory research into the materials used to treat infection in the past. To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to create a medieval medicines database in this manner and for this purpose."

A recipe for an eyesalve from ‘Bald’s Leechbook.’ © The British Library Board (Royal MS 12 D xvii)

An exciting discovery was a recipe for a salve for a stye in the eye.  As Connolly describes, "In 2015, our team published a pilot study on a 1,000-year old recipe called Bald’s eyesalve from “Bald’s Leechbook,” an Old English medical text. The eyesalve was to be used against a “wen,” which may be translated as a sty, or an infection of the eyelash follicle.

"A common cause of modern styes is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) is resistant to many current antibiotics. Staph and MRSA infections are responsible for a variety of severe and chronic infections, including wound infections, sepsis and pneumonia.

"Bald’s eyesalve contains wine, garlic, an Allium species (such as leek or onion) and oxgall. The recipe states that, after the ingredients have been mixed together, they must stand in a brass vessel for nine nights before use.

"In our study, this recipe turned out to be a potent antistaphylococcal agent, which repeatedly killed established S. aureus biofilms – a sticky matrix of bacteria adhered to a surface – in an in vitro infection model. It also killed MRSA in mouse chronic wound models."

Interestingly, the method laid out in the Leechbook had to be followed exactly.  It seems that though we now deride those old practitioners for their reliance on bloodletting and balancing the "humors,"  they often did know what they were doing -- and the lore of the old barber-surgeons, apothecaries and alchemists of the medieval past is still of value today.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Secret tomb of five archbishops

From The Smithsonian
The Church of England doesn’t have a pope, but it does have an Archbishop of Canterbury.

Historically, the Archbishop has wielded lots of power, so you’d think historians would know where every one was buried.  But that’s not exactly true—as the BBC reports a recent discovery uncovered five buried archbishops.

The remains of five Archbishops of Canterbury were found in a hidden crypt beneath St. Mary-at-Lambeth, a medieval church in London. The structure is located next to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s official residence for nearly eight centuries. While the church hasn’t been used for religious worship since the 1970s, but it once was noteworthy not just because of its famous location, but because of the rich history within.

Part of that history was uncovered by builders busy doing a restoration project on the church. They were lifting flagstones from the ground when they uncovered a hidden tomb. A glimpse of an archbishop’s red and gold miter—the traditional headcovering of a bishop—greeted the builders, the BBC reports. When they went inside, they found a stack of coffins, many with nameplates that point to famous residents.

Among the dead uncovered are five Archbishops of Canterbury, including Richard Bancroft, who played a role in the creation of the renowned King James Bible. Bancroft violently objected to the translation of the bible—the third and most famous English translation in existence. But later on, he ended up overseeing the entire contentious project, and was the man who laid down the guidelines.

As The Smithsonian described in a previous issue --

Forty-seven translators and scholars produced the King James Bible, which was first published in 1611. The project dates back to 1604, when King James I decided a new version could help consolidate political power. A popular Puritan bible had downplayed the divine right of kings — greatly offending James — and James manipulated different Christian sects until they agreed to produce a different translation.

The result became an incredible, long-lasting success. The King James Bible has influenced language, literature and culture for more than 400 years.

Wry commentary on NZ politics

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Shipwrecks and Lost Barbeques in the Marlborough Sounds

From Radio NZ news

Story by Tracy Neal

 Mapping the seafloor in Marlborough has thrown up one or two surprises, not least the discovery that it has shifted slightly since the Kaikōura earthquake, Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) says.

Its national hydrographer Adam Greenland said they have also found a shipwreck in shallower waters than first thought, and a selection of barbecues, fridges and bottles most likely tossed overboard from boats.

And Mr Greenland said shore-based observations showed a minor horizontal shift in the land due to November's magnitude-7.8 earthquake.

"In terms of the seabed and the survey we're carrying out we have seen some minor changes but we're still analysing that data, however it's nothing as extreme as in Kaikōura," Mr Greenland said.

The project uses multibeam echosounder technology from a ship and is a joint effort between LINZ and the Marlborough District Council. Sonar readings were used to create 3D digital maps and shipping charts to show the land formation of the seabed and the marine ecosystem.

The $1.5 million project began last year, and will soon finish with a final report to be released next year.

The focus was 43 hectares of seafloor in the Queen Charlotte Sound and in Tory Channel. Mr Greenland said the aim was to update navigation charts especially as shipping and cruise liner operations were expected to increase. The research would also provide data for the council to help it manage the area's marine wildlife.

LINZ said the areas being mapped were identified as a national priority for updating navigation information as they were last charted about 70 years ago.

"It's really looking at the future, for shipping and cruise tourism, and the need for good charts for the (Captain James) Cook anniversary celebrations," Mr Greenland said.

Planning is now underway for an event in three year's time, to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook sailing into Ship Cove, in the Queen Charlotte Sound.

Jetty at Ship Cove -- the entry to the Cook Memorial

Friday, April 14, 2017


Money ships were wrecks of treasure-galleons belched up from the bottom of the sea after tremendous storms, yielding doubloons and all kinds of precious treasure ... gold bars and bullion, chests of brilliant gems

Oriental adventurer Captain Rochester spun an entrancing tale to Jerusha, seafaring daughter of Captain Michael Gardiner — a story of a money ship, hidden in the turquoise waters of the South China Sea, which was nothing less than the lost trove of the pirate Hochman.  As Jerusha was to find, though, the clues that pointed the way to fabled riches were strange indeed — a haunted islet on an estuary in Borneo, an obelisk with a carving of a rampant dragon, a legend of kings and native priests at war, and of magically triggered tempests that swept warriors upriver.  And even if the clues were solved, the route to riches was tortuous, involving treachery, adultery, murder, labyrinthine Malayan politics … and, ultimately, Jerusha’s own arranged marriage.

An epic drama of fortune-hunting in the South China Sea during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, The Money Ship is a fast-moving novel on a sprawling canvas that spans three oceans and a myriad of exotic ports. As the pages turn, Jerusha voyages from the smuggling and fishing port of Lewes, Sussex to Boston in its glittering heyday, then back to newly settled Singapore, until her quest for love and pirate treasure comes to a spine-chilling climax in the benighted lands of Borneo.

eBook available on Amazon,  in print soon.

What Australia sends little New Zealand

Thursday, April 6, 2017

US tourist trade suffering from Trumpism

Talking to other cruisers on Cunard's beautiful Queen Victoria last month, I was struck by the number of horror stories from people who had flown into the United States to board the ship in Fort Lauderdale.  Before they could get to Florida and ultimately the wharf, they had to land in LAX, and go through the formalities.  Which turned out to be a nightmare.

I heard stories of harassment by immigration and customs officials.
Stories of husbands and wives being taken into different rooms for separate interrogations.
Stories of four-hour queues for customs and immigration attention.
Stories of an Air NZ plane being kept waiting on the (expensive) tarmac for nearly two hours after boarding time, because transit passengers could not be found.

And these were New Zealanders, Australians, and British.  Men and women in late middle-age or even much older, affluent people who can afford a pricey cruise, and must be the most unlikely terrorists possible.  One Chinese-Australian couple (fourth or fifth generation Australian) visibly shook with rage as they told me about it.

Every single one swore they would never set foot in the States again.

Talking with a well-traveled friend yesterday about her next trip, she revealed that she and her husband are deliberately planning not to fly through the United States, which set me to thinking. What if this is a massive trend?

And I find that it is.  According to the Boston Globe, tourist numbers are diving. The story likens the situation to the disaster that crippled the US tourist industry after the attack on 9/11.

The story, by Christopher Muther, is headlined, YOU COULD CALL US TOURISM A VICTIM OF TRUMP'S TRAVEL BAN.

He writes:

President Trump’s travel ban targeting nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries may not have held up in court, but it appears quite successful at keeping plenty of other people out of the United States.

Trump’s order brought with it a swift decline in the number of worldwide tourists and travelers looking to visit the United States, say people in the tourism industry. Some say it could be as damaging to the US tourism sector as the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Online booking websites reported that flight searches from international points of origin to the United States were down anywhere from 6 percent to 17 percent since Trump signed the executive order on Jan. 27. But experts say what’s more alarming is the icy message it sends to the world.

“The US is in danger of taking the same path it took after Sept. 11, which led to a decade of economic stagnation in the travel and tourism sector,” said David Scowsill, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council. “Strict visa policies and inward-looking sentiment led to a $600 billion loss in tourism revenues in the decade post 9/11.”

And what is that going to do for American jobs?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Political swing in the Pacific

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and PM Bill English in Wellington
How a few headlines illustrate how the world can change ....

FAMINE HITS AS US LOOKS TO SLASH AID, runs one heading in today's Wellington Dominion Post newspaper.

NZ DONATES $3 MILLION TO SUPPORT FAMINE RELIEF, runs another.  Yes, we are a small country down here in the bottom of the Pacific, but we do our bit, it seems.  That three million is for emergency famine relief in Africa and Yemen.  It is intended to assist the more than 20 million people facing starvation across the Greater Horn of Africa, Nigeria and Yemen, so how far it will go is an uncomfortable imponderable.  Nonetheless, it is a contrast to the other item, which reports that Donald Trump is cutting foreign aid just in time to dodge the "world's largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years."

So, in view of the isolationist stance of the latest administration in Washington, it is probably no wonder that the world is turning in other directions.  Or that the Chinese Premier is shaking the hands of politicians and business leaders downunder.   As commentator Vernon Small remarks in the same paper, the timing of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's three-day visit couldn't be nicer. "With the United States President Donald Trump taking the protectionist route, and China claiming the free trade high ground, he and [New Zealand Prime Minister] Bill English had much to agree on."

And, what's more, Mr. English has received an official invitation to a visit to China.  As Small goes on to muse, "you would have to think he will find that a much more welcome prospect than the normally sought-after gold-standard invitation, the one to the White House."

It is obvious to all that there is not going to be the comradely relationship between Trump and English that was the case with President Obama and our ex-PM, John Key.

There's more than handshakes and barbeque dinners at stake.  As the editorial -- under the headline BALANCING ACT WITH CHINA -- commences, "The visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiant puts a spotlight on New Zealand's need for the superpower."

And, despite all kinds of difficulties, with the abdication of the United States the alternative in the Pacific is China.  The tricky bit is coming to a mutually comfortable agreement.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rare whales in Cook Strait

From Radio New Zealand  

NIWA marine ecologist Dr Kim Goetz and her team put seven acoustic moorings - or hydrophones - in the Strait last June and, after retrieving them in December, are getting preliminary results.

The whales so far found in the audio include humpbacks, Antarctic blue whales and Antarctic minke whales.

Many beaked whales were also recorded.

Beaked whales are rarely seen because they usually dive for long periods. Dr Goetz's team thought their audio of the Gray's and strap-toothed beaked whales were likely the first recorded in New Zealand.

She said she was most excited to find the Cuvier's beaked whale on the recordings.

"So little information is known about these animals and, you know, it's primarily from stranding events ... dead animals that could be sick.

"What we're hearing are the live animals in their habitat and we're hearing them across the entire Cook Strait region. That's really novel information."

Dr Goetz said when she proposed the idea of putting the recorders in the Strait it raised eyebrows at NIWA because of the harsh environment.

They used a computer programme to run through the 14 terabytes of recorded noise and recognise and classify the whales.

As well as whales, many boats and strong currents were recorded. On November 14, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake interrupted the recordings.

She said there could be some interesting results from the data.

"With this we'll be able to tell later on, is there a difference before and after the earthquake in terms of vocalisations.

"There's just nothing really known about how marine mammals might respond to an earthquake.

"So that's something that can come out later."

Cook Strait import for whales

More than half of the world's whale and dolphin species are found in New Zealand waters.

Before now, little was known about their migration paths and their behaviour.

Anton van Helden used to work at the Marine Mammal collections at Te Papa and is the Marine Conservation Advocate at Forest and Bird.

"It just shows what an important area Cook Strait is to these species and perhaps others," he said.

"This is really exciting news now that we get to hear them, hear where they go and what they're up to so that's fantastic."

Mr van Helden said most information about whale movements and populations came from strandings. This was a new area.

"As new technology develops we get more information, so that revolutionises the way that we perceive the lives of animals.

"Just knowing these are present and out there, it also means that we have some responsibility to manage what happens to those animals."

Dr Kim Goetz said the project needed to be more than a one-off so scientists could understand annual variations to the whale songs.

The moors were redeployed in February and would be analysed in August.