Archive for May 2011
Going through a box of old stuff, my brother recently unearthed some really interesting stuff: An A4-sized sheet of paper with photographs glued to the front, and a text written by our late father on the back. The photographs date from roughly 1930 to about 1990 and depict my father’s father at various stages of his life. All of them are pictures neither of us had seen before. The text on the backside is entitled “Memories – Of my father” and was written by our dad on the day our grandfather died.
Reading it, for the first time in my life I realized that I know next to nothing about my grandfather. We’ve always been a rather atomic family. Relatives tend to live rather far away and contact tends to be maintained loosely. We did visit my grandparents when we were kids, but not too often, and almost never for more than a single day at a time. My grandfather died when I was 7 years old, and until then I had mostly stayed out of his room, which he only left for meals.
To a seven-year-old, he was an intimidating figure – a grumpy old man sitting in a dark and dusty room, tied to strange and noisy machines that seemed to serve the purpose of doing his breathing for him. This is what he looked like then, and how I remember him:
I never spared this man much thought – he simply didn’t play any significant role at any point in my life. Still, reading my father’s recapitulation of his life had me choking down tears. I’m not sure whether that’s due to the depressing facts of my grandfather’s life, or a reaction to the sadness of my father’s voice speaking from the old text. One way or the other, the summary of my granddad’s life is a story worth reading, so here it is:
Born on October 4th, 1921 in a well-off family, he spent a childhood that, according to his own account, was “happy”. With his brother he noshed on raisins and marzipan in his uncle’s Bread-factory, and was allowed to ride along in his beloved grandpa’s (the 7th German to own a Penny Farthing bycicle) Ford “Model T”.
The beginning of his adolescence concurred with the beginning of the Nazi-reign in Germany. Convinced as well as indoctrinated by the new ideology, he volunteered to serve at the warfront at the age of eighteen.
Chaperoned throughout his teenage-years by the HJ (Hitler Youth), he spent his youth in the trenches of a horrible war, and returned “home” in 1946 as a young man from russian war captivity – One bullet in his stomach, the lung penetrated by another, leg injuries, Frostbite, “Russian Periodontitis”, Malaria – without teeth of his own and plexiglass-implants below his knees instead of real bones. A physical wreck at the tender age of 25.
An iron will to persist, cheerfulness and humor (later also alcohol), were the sanctuaries that allowed him to forget his lack of physical ability.
Whether office parties at the post-war-employer’s, rounds of Doppelkopf (a card game) or simply with friends at a bar – with his blunt or sharp remarks, superficial or subtle jokes, his flat crudities or his fiery esprit he always was at the center of any social gathering. Somebody who made people laugh – and made them forget the surrounding debris and its causes, push it to the back of their minds at least temporarily.
He, himself a master of suppression, was considered a humorist, a blithe spirit, the life of every party – and liked that role. Nobody could or wanted to see his suffering, which he wouldn’t allow to surface for even a moment.
A new job, marriage, the birth of his son – the highlights of the fifties.
He lived without regard for his infirmity – which he put out of his mind, but which still existed. Whenever he spoke of scars or injuries, it was like he wasn’t talking about himself, but about entirely abstract objects.
But the suppression of reality did not enable him to endure the permanent burden of a life in the workforce. In his early forties he was as often certified sick as present at the workplace, and was signed unfit for work (or, as he called it, “broken”) before the age of fifty.
1975 his physician predicted that he’d have perhaps two, maximally three years left to live. 1978 he moved to the countryside in good spirits, hoping to be able to catch his breath in the fresh air and for an improvement of his condition. But nothing did improve.
His ailments didn’t get worse, either, but the chronic presence of his condition and the continuing, for him always surprising experience of his physical limitations increasingly wore him down.
The continuous intake of drugs and the accompanying side effects lead to an increasing loss of physical balance, which in turn was medicated with even more drugs (with side effects of their own). Even though he made fun of that essentially ridiculous loop with unbroken (gallows-) humor; the captivity in this vicious circle too exhausted a large amount of his strength.
Today, on February 10th, 1995, his strength is finally drained.
Yep, Just a Little Common Sense turned one. Actually, it turned one a little over two weeks ago.
I started this blog at the very end of april last year; I had been back in Germany for a while and faced at least half a year without occupation, due to my being too stupid to notice my gross misconception in how universities choose from their applications.
Being unemployed was hell – It turned me nocturnal and into a couch potato. Without any serious motivation to get out of bed in the morning and without deadlines to keep, I quickly perfected the art of procrastination. The days dragged, but the weeks whizzed by.
So I started blogging – in order to finally have something to do again, in order to keep up (and perhaps improve) my english skills, in order to finally spent my time with something marginally more useful than online-games.
After two months I had produced nearly 40 pieces of writing, most of them utter crap, but all of them good practice and fulfilling their purpose of keeping me busy. I spent serious time promoting the blog, too – and quickly reached averages of about 100 individual clicks per day.
Blogging wasn’t the only thing I did to keep my brain from turning to mush, of course. At the same time I started attending meetings of political parties and humanist/skeptic organizations in my area, searching for new stimuli, conversations, inspirations. I searched for groups of people with goals worth supporting, and I found one Humanist group whose meetings I still attend regularly.
If you have been following this blog, you may have noticed that over the last few month my output dropped significantly. My activity here declined to less than four posts per month. The good news is that that’s because things have been going well lately – I have a life that is worthy of my undivided attention again.
I’ve been stressed out for a long time now and it’s been quite a stretch emotionally as well as physically, but I’m alright now and at the moment it looks like there’s nothing but further improvements ahead. I’m finally myself again.
I feel able to write again- where in the past months the reason I haven’t posted was that I couldn’t seem to find the right words, now it’s that I simply lack the time. But I am planning to take this more seriously again, and I’ve promised myself to ramp up my output to at least six posts per month again. Because even though I started this half-heartedly because I felt I had to do something to keep my brain from decaying, I’ve really grown fond of blogging. There’s something intriguing about the blogosphere, this strange world of carefully selected and presented insights into the souls of strangers. I very much liked being a part of it, for however short and superficially, and even though my initial reasons for running this blog are gone now, I’d like to stay and perhaps even increase my presence here. It’s been helpful to write about stuff, to speak up about things that concern me, to rant about things that annoy me. To praise the things I find beautiful. Thanks to all of you who during this past year have shared their thoughts with me, who offered support or constructive criticism. Thanks even to the few trolls and religious nutbags. I appreciate it.
Suddenly there’s an entire nation celebrating. And not only america is stoked: the heads of other nations are already sending their congratulations. It’s a celebration of a victory that doesn’t exist, of the murder of yet another human being. The death of Osama bin Laden will not change a thing. The situation in Iraq will not improve, the soldiers won’t be in any less danger, none of the 9/11 victims will come back to life. NOTHING has been accomplished here.
All it is is a disgusting display of people’s primitive lust for vengeance, and it makes me sick to my stomach.
Seriously. It’s been a few thousand years since we thought that tit-for-tat made for actual justice. One should think that now that we’ve been to the moon, we might have left this preposterous primitivism behind and developed more sophisticated ways of dealing with wrongdoings.
“Osama plotted the killing of a few thousand americans, let’s kill him 3000 times to get even…” What a load brainless shit. Again, what has been accomplished here? Terrorism is just a symptom, not the disease. The diseases that cause it are called “poverty”, “bad government” and “desperation”… Those are the problems that need to be dealt with. The only way to win the “war on terrorism” (oh how fucking ridiculous that term is!!!) is by eleminating the need for it: By improving the living conditions of the people within the “rogue states”, by tracking down the sources that furnish organizations like Al Quaida with money and weaponry, by helping the people to establish a fair and stable government. Only desperate people support fundamentalists – Terrorist would not find much support among a nation of educated and well-fed citizens.
I realize how high those goals are, but please don’t tell me that there is no way of accomplishing them given the incredible amount of money and resources that we choose to spent on expensive toys for our generals to play with instead.
There is a lot of talk about “Designer Babies”. Everybody knows that it is already possible to screen embryos for certain genetic diseases, so how far could we possibly be away from the process of picking and choosing specific traits for our babies, having them designed according to our wishes, have the modified embryo implanted, and nine month later giving birth to exactly the baby we wanted? Actually, can we even be sure the rich and powerful aren’t already secretly doing just that in shady hidden labs, run by megalomanic mad scientists? Are there already designed people walking among us?
The short answer is no. The technique used for avoiding genetic diseases in couples that have a high risk of giving birth to genetically impaired offspring is called Pre Implantation Genetic Diagnosis, usually shortened to “PGD” or “PIGD”.
Quite unlike what most people imagine, this doesn’t actually involve sequencing the embryo’s DNA: There is no doctor looking at thousands of lines of genetic code and saying stuff like: “it’s gonna be a tall blonde boy with an IQ of 126. Do you want us to remove his predisposition to alcoholism?”
In reality, PGD is very limited. The embryos are scrutinized at a stage when they consist of 8 cells. In this stage, all of the cells are still pluripotent (they haven’t specialized to be anything specific yet) and the embryo is still capable of being frozen and later reanimated without taking any damage. From these 8 cells, two are removed for the purpose of screening. That doesn’t impair the embryo, as at that stage the remaining six cells keep dividing into perfect copies of each other and the growth simply continues.
The two removed cells each contain two sets of chromosomes. That is very little genetic material to work with.
With so little material, you have to know very specifically where to look and what you’re looking for in order to be able to spot anything at all. Sequencing the complete genome is not possible under these conditions. So “Screening” is limited to just that: Tests that check for a very specific genetic abnormalities in very specific places on the genome. In a healthy organism, every chromosome ought to be found twice in each cell. Some diseases are caused by one of these copies missing (monosomy), or there being three rather than two copies present (trisomy). These are the kind of genetic defects that we can spot with PGD. And that’s great, because it allows us to avoid some pretty horrible diseases. But all the hype is exaggerated: All those who are panicking because they think that if we don’t outlaw PGD, people will be able to walk into a clinic with a list of attributes they’d like their child to have, and be furnished with an accordingly designed embryo ready for implantation, have no idea what they are talking about.
Anything beyond recognizing the most obvious of oddities is still very much science fiction.