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Introduction

 

The following article presents a report by Jordan Baker, as part of her history assignment when she was in year 10 at North Sydney Girls’ High School.   For this assignment she interviewed her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother about their lives as girls; and the changes they had experienced; particularly in respect of the freedoms they were allowed.

Her early talent is evident in this report and after graduating in Arts at Sydney University, Jordan's career has encompassed journalism at the Sydney Morning Herald as well as several earlier roles in the media, leading to her present position as News Editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly.

Inspired by her project I have recorded what I know of my mother's experience; and those of her mother and her mother's mother.  They were in England but have some striking similarities; as well as contrasts [Read more...]

Her conclusion in year 10, that the world is now more dangerous for children than it once was, is interesting but would no doubt be more nuanced today. 

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, the level of violence in Australia, as measured by the homicide rate, is at the same level, or lower, than it was 80 years ago.  The Institute notes that violent crime tends to follow demographic trends; particularly the number of young men aged 18 to 24; and is culturally driven, being much more prevalent in some communities than others.  After accounting for historical non-reporting (think of children in care) the incidence of rape and other crimes against children appears to be considerably lower today.  Stranger danger has actually decreased. 

It may well be due to greater parental vigilance and tighter constraints but society is now significantly less dangerous to children than it was back then.  The main increase in physical danger to children is due to cars and other motor vehicles. The greater use of vehicles to drive children about may thus have actually decreased child safety overall.

But, again according to the Institute of Criminology,  public opinion surveys continue to show that violent crime is one of the most prominent concerns of Australians.  This high level of concern is undoubtedly media driven.  'If it bleeds, it leads'. 

Nowadays if there isn’t a good violent crime locally for the media to report, one from interstate or overseas will do; with pictures of course; and let’s repeat the news fifty times; with an on site reporter; as it happens; with updates every few minutes; relayed over every news channel that will take a feed.

Jordan’s great-grandmother simply had no way of knowing that it was more dangerous for children to roam about when she was a child.  The news was strictly local.  Parents were oblivious unless they heard about a local incident ‘over the back fence’; or at the Baby Health Centre. 

Jordan’s great-grandmother also recalls the Catholic school - State school tensions when she was a girl.

When I was a school child I recall that both sides of the Christian divide had rhymes of abuse, handed down from earlier generations; just as recalled by Jordan’s great-grandmother.  Christian sectarian rivalry and hatred between Roman Catholics and Protestants was once a defining feature of Australian society.   

There was considerable pressure on Catholic parents to send their child to a sectarian school.  But not all parents complied.  Despite increasing levels of taxpayer funded subsidy, Parochial Catholic schools had very low rates of academic achievement.  I went to State schools with many Catholics, easily identifiable when we were separated during scripture periods, whose parents wanted a better quality secular education for their children; or could not afford private school fees.  Wendy's parents were among these and she and her sister attended State schools.

Elsewhere on this site I have referred to Ned Kelly; the sectarian polarisation around him; and the hatred he expresses in his famous 'Jerilderie Letter'.  Jordan’s distant cousin on her maternal grandfather's side, Les Darcy, became another such rallying point for oppressed Catholics [read more...]. 

This sectarian enmity was largely dissipated in the cultural revolution that was the 1960’s. 

Seen in retrospect the 60's was a technology, wealth and education driven cultural watershed.  Following this watershed, the role of religion in lives of people changed dramatically; particularly throughout Europe and Australasia.  Traditional societal power balances were upset, sometimes violently.

In the 50's the word 'black', applied to a person, was highly derogatory and/or patronising; equivalent to 'nigger' (as in Little Black Sambo who ran around and around the tree, chased by a tiger, until it turned into butter).  The Black Power movement in the 60's changed all that; there was desegregation in the US and Australia; miscegenation, once illegal as in Show Boat (1927) became an acceptable norm Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).

Women got the right to equal pay; the first step towards full gender equity.  The 'pill', the IUD and, failing those, abortion on demand, gave women control over their reproduction.  No-fault divorce freed unhappy or discontented couples to form new relationships and extended and enriched family alliances; that demonstrably benefited many children; including those mentioned on this website.

It was impossible in the 1950's that there could be a black president in the US; a black four star general; or a black, female, Secretary of State. 

It was impossible that there would be a female, atheist, Australian Prime Minister; living in an open de-facto relationship; and visiting other Heads of State with her partner as consort. 

It was impossible that the future king of England and Australia etc, future titular head of the Church of England, would live openly, for years before marriage, with his future wife, a commoner who's great-grandparent was a pit worker;  or that the future Danish King would take as his wife an Australian girl he met in a bar in Sydney; or that either would take such a person as their official consort to State occasions before marriage. 

It was impossible that there would be a female Christian Priest; or Bishop.

In Western cultures these changes are society wide.  Almost no one considers marriage until they have lived with their partner, often more than one; and almost everyone subscribes to gender and ethnic equality.  

The concept of 'class' as an hereditary position, or right, is collapsing in favour of merit; defined by personal qualities: education; abilities; potential; and achievement.  In-breeding is no longer seen as 'good breeding'.

These changes happened coincidentally with the reformation of religious institutions that previously upheld traditional power relationships like: class, gender and racial distinction; as well as supporting traditional sectarian enmities. 

In the Census of 1954 nearly 90% of Australians were Christian of whom only a quarter were Roman Catholic. Almost 50% of Australians reported regular church attendance and only 10% of Australians reported no religion.

But by 1966 those reporting no religion had almost doubled to 18.3% and churches were all reporting a steep decline in attendance. 

In response to post-war challenges to traditional religion, particularly in wealthier countries, the Second Vatican Council had made root and branch changes in Roman Catholicism. The council's four sessions from 1962 to 1965: modernized the liturgy; made sweeping changes to the priesthood and nuns and their religious life; enhanced the role of lay Catholics; and above all opened dialogue with other churches and non-Christians.

Today the change has continued. In the 2006 Census Australians reporting no religion had risen to 29.9% and non-Christian religions had also grown, particularly Buddhism. Only 7.5% of the population reported regular church attendance.

While the Pentecostal movement has been growing, the loss of support overall is most strongly felt on the protestant side of the 450 year old Christian Reformation dispute.  Hardest hit have been the more traditionally protestant Presbyterian and Methodist (Uniting) churches. 

Now Roman Catholics (25.8% of the population) are the largest denomination and make up nearly half of all Christians in Australia. 

 

Jordan's report follows...

 

 


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Travel

Poland

Poland

 

 

Berlin

We were to drive to Poland from Berlin.  In September and October 2014 were in Berlin to meet and spend some time with my new grandson, Leander.  But because we were concerned that we might be a burden to entertain for a whole month-and-a-half, what with the demands of a five month old baby and so on, we had pre-planned a number of side-trips.  The last of these was to Poland. 

To pick up the car that I had booked months before, we caught the U-Bahn from Magdalenenstraße, close to Emily's home in Lichtenberg, to Alexanderplatz.  Quick - about 15 minutes - and easy.

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

The Meaning of Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

'I was recently restored to life after being dead for several hours' 

The truth of this statement depends on the changing and surprisingly imprecise meaning of the word: 'dead'. 

Until the middle of last century a medical person may well have declared me dead.  I was definitely dead by the rules of the day.  I lacked most of the essential 'vital signs' of a living person and the technology that sustained me in their absence was not yet perfected. 

I was no longer breathing; I had no heartbeat; I was limp and unconscious; and I failed to respond to stimuli, like being cut open (as in a post mortem examination) and having my heart sliced into.  Until the middle of the 20th century the next course would have been to call an undertaker; say some comforting words then dispose of my corpse: perhaps at sea if I was travelling (that might be nice); or it in a box in the ground; or by feeding my low-ash coffin into a furnace then collect the dust to deposit or scatter somewhere.

But today we set little store by a pulse or breathing as arbiters of life.  No more listening for a heartbeat or holding a feather to the nose. Now we need to know about the state of the brain and central nervous system.  According to the BMA: '{death} is generally taken to mean the irreversible loss of capacity for consciousness combined with the irreversible loss of capacity to breathe'.  In other words, returning from death depends on the potential of our brain and central nervous system to recover from whatever trauma or disease assails us.

Read more ...

Opinions and Philosophy

The Chemistry of Life

 

 

What everyone should know

Most of us already know that an atom is the smallest division of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction; that a molecule is a structure of two or more atoms; and that life on Earth is based on organic molecules: defined as those molecules that contain carbon, often in combination with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as well as other elements like sodium, calcium, phosphorous and iron.  

Organic molecules can be very large indeed and come in all shapes and sizes. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle molecular shape is often important to an organic molecule's ability to bond to another to form elaborate and sometimes unique molecular structures.

All living things on Earth are comprised of cells and all cells are comprised of numerous molecular structures.

Unlike the 'ancients', most 'moderns' also know that each of us, like almost all animals and all mamals, originated from a single unique cell, an ova, that was contributed by our mother.  This was fertilised by a single unique sperm from our father.

This 'fertilisation' triggered the first cell division. These two cells divided; and divided again and again; through gestation and on to birth childhood. So that by the time we are adults we've become a huge colony of approximately thirty seven thousand billion, variously specialised, cells of which between sixty and a hundred billion die and are replaced every day. Thus the principal function of a cell, over and above its other specialised purposes, is replication. 

As a result, the mass of cells we lose each year, through normal cell division and death, is close to our entire body weight. Some cells last much longer than a year but few last longer than twenty years. So each of us is like a corporation in which every employee and even the general manager has changed, yet the institution goes on largely as before, thanks to a comprehensive list of job descriptions carried by every cell - our genome.

Cell replication is what we call 'life'.  The replicating DNA molecule can therefore be regarded as the 'engine of life' or the 'life force' on Earth.  So it is quite a good thing to understand. 

 


What makes us human?

Different animals and plants have different numbers of genes and chromosomes that together make up their genome.  Many are far more complex than humans.  The 32 thousand  human genes are organised into 23 pairs of chromosomes within each of our cells.  But the protein-coding genes, that differentiate us, form only a fraction (about 1.5%) of the instruction and memory data that is stored in DNA. The remainder, coding for other aspects of cell chemistry, seems to be administrative overhead.

When human girls are born, they have about a million eggs in each of their two ovaries, nestled in fluid-filled cavities called follicles. But this number declines quite rapidly so that it is depleted by the time of menopause (usually before 50 years of age). Unless fertility treatment is in use, just one or sometimes two of these (apparently randomly selected) ova descends from the ovaries each menstrual period - down the woman's fallopian tubes where it (or they) may become fertilised if the woman has recently engaged in coitus (had 'sex').

As in vitro fertilization (IVF) demonstrates every day; we now understand that a unique version of your father's genome was injected into your mother's egg by just one of his millions of spermatozoa. So that when the two genomes merged a doubly unique cell, that became you, was the result.

Our genes, that are encoded in their DNA, come in equal proportion from both parents.  Unless we have an identical twin, resulting from division of the zygote (see below) after fertilisation, each of us is genetically unique; our genetic identity determined by that successful fertilisation. 

 

 


Human Reproduction - Click here to Expand

 

Within our species we are said to be of Caucasian or Asian or African appearance, to have dark or fair complexion and so on, and possibly to bear a ‘family resemblance’.  These traits are due to the particular gene variants we have inherited from our parents.

These have been passed down to us, with regular variations, from parent to child, and through many ancestor species, since life began on the planet. And all plants and animals on Earth belong to a single family because we all inherit the same system of reproduction from one original replicating cell, our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

 


Replication

The DNA molecular structure resembles a zip fastener, where each tooth can be any of four molecular bases.  The bases G-C and A-T are each small organic molecules that at one point are covalently bound to a triphosphate (containing three phosphorous atoms) and a sugar group that binds them in a ribbon.  At their free end Guanine is attracted to Cytosine, with triple hydrogen bonds, and Adenine is attracted to Thymine, with double hydrogen bonds. 

In the following notation: black = Carbon;  blue = Nitrogen;  red = Oxygen; white = Hydrogen.   Bars joining them indicate a covalent bond, an electron shared between the atoms.  A double bar indicates two shared electrons.   

 

  Cytosine (C4H5N3O) has a shape that attracts (fits)   Guanine (C5H5N5O) 


but not  Thymine (C5H6N2O2)  or   Adenine (C5H5N5), that attract (fit) each other.

 

Each of these bases is bound to a ribbon of  sugar molecules and at its other end lightly bonds to a matching base on the other half of the 'zipper' such that when it is 'unzipped' each attracts its opposite number (like magnets attracting the opposite pole) thus recreating a new matching half in the same sequence.

 


DNA replication. 

 

This unzipping and reforming is called self-replication. It is going on continuously in all living things as new cells are created to replace those that die. In an adult human around three quarters of a million of our cells divide every second.  This cell division is the process we call organic life and may continue (usually briefly) after we are legally (brain) dead.

Other chemical mechanisms within the cell translate the genetic information stored in the DNA sequence to manufacture the proteins from which new cells are built and differentiate themselves, organising to become our various organs and to thus arrange themselves to form a human; and not a gorilla or a crocodile or a kola or a rose or a cabbage. The human genome project had now identified 32,185 human genes.

Accurate reproduction is very important to the viability of an organism.  Just as: 'WOLF' does not have the same meaning as 'FOWL' the location and order of sequence G-A-T-C within a particular DNA string (chromosome) will result in a different outcome to the sequence C-A-G-T .   And this difference will influence cell structure and purpose:   'The wolf eats the fowl' has a totally different meaning to: 'The fowl eats the wolf'.

This method of storing and reproducing instructions and data is twice as efficient as the binary method we presently use in electronic devices.  For example the binary processor in your computer or reading device requires each character in in each word in this sentence to be encoded in two bytes (each of 8 characters or bits).  In other words 16 ones and zeros are required for every character on this page (eg 'a' = 0000000001100001) and a similar number for each pixel in a simple colour image.  But DNA can encode the same information (sufficient for every unique character and symbol in every language in the world) in just eight characters.

There are a fraction over 3 billion characters in the human genome (3,079,843,747 base pairs).  In computer terms this is equivalent to about three quarters of a gigabyte of information storage. The same data is stored in the nucleus of each of our cells.  This is in nuclear DNA, before taking into account separate, but smaller, storage in each of the mitochondria (see below). 

A 'gig' isn't much you might say (less than $1's worth) but the actual data storage density is in excess of anything offered by our present electronic technology.  Cells are a lot smaller than the chip in a memory stick - there around a billion cells per cubic centimetre in hard tissue.

This also points to another reality.  Had not this replication chemistry been available, and the conditions for the reactions been just right, life could not have occurred in its earthly form. 

Life relying on another replication method that was say binary would be at a disadvantage and would have to use different replication mechanisms.  If there was a chemistry, at different temperatures and chemical concentrations, allowing say six base pairs it would be different again.  We and our cousins (the other animals, plants and other organisms) that are all descended from the original replicating cell (LUCA - see above) are here because the conditions on Earth were and are just right for our kind of life to prosper.

Elsewhere in the universe it may be different.

 


Gene Mapping

Genes are just patterns of chemical molecules that are held within the replicating DNA mechanism.  The way they are encoded onto DNA can be likened to any other mechanism for copying and recording data: a DVD or even a vinyl record or the memory in this computer.  As a result they can be altered or damaged from time to time and some of these variations are successfully copied into subsequent offspring.  If they are particularly advantageous to survival and reproduction these changes, or mutations, rapidly spread throughout the species, so that over tens of thousands of years, individuals successful in one environmental niche are so different from those successful in another that a new species has formed (followed by a new genus, family, order, and so on). 

This process of periodic differentiation has been likened to the branching of a tree but because of the activity of bacteria and viruses and residual DNA that may be reactivated as well as limited cross-species reproduction  (for example later Humans and Neanderthal) it is no longer believed to be quite that simple.

DNA encodes the instructions for creating each cellular colony, defining each species, and each individual within a species. DNA changes over time in such away that each change is a development on previous generations. So it is possible to trace DNA ancestry back through generations of a particular species over time.  For example, DNA studies are increasingly shedding light on the questions around human origins. 

Most animals, including humans, carry two types of DNA.  Our main genome is carried by the chromosomes in the nucleus of each of our cells. This comes from both our parents. The secondary genome, mtDNA, is carried by bacteria-like organelles within each of our cells, that convert sugars for cell energy, called mitochondria. These are all cloned (reproduced by asexual division) from the mitochondria that were within the original egg cell provided by our mother.

Cells may contain from one mitochondrion to several thousand mitochondria depending on species and cell differentiation.  As a result this is the predominant DNA found in a cellular sample.

So our mtDNA comes only from our mother; in turn from her mother; and so on and mtDNA allows us to map the female ancestral line.  This original egg cell was fertilised by a sperm from our father (sperm do not contribute their mitochondria). Once fertilised, the egg cell then divided repeatedly, differentiating in accordance with the coding instructions in our DNA, into the many cells that form the cellular colony that became 'us'.

Males are differentiated from females by a Y chromosome in place of one X. So sons can only inherit this from their father (like their family name in our culture) and periodic mutations in the DNA of the Y chromosome allow the (actual) male ancestral line to be traced back.

As a result of this work we now know that humans on the planet are all descended from a single group that left Africa less than 70 thousand years ago. 

Recent DNA analysis shows that early humans sometimes interbred with the Neanderthal; a separate hominid subspecies that left Africa much earlier and settled in the Middle East and Europe over quarter of a million years ago.

It's amazing to think that we have only understood it within my lifetime. Now the ancient view that people grow from a seed, provided by their father, and gain the spark of life at 'conception' from a god is totally debunked. So throw away all those ancient texts.

 


Viruses

Viruses have been around since life began but they are 'of life', they are not technically 'alive' because they cannot themselves reproduce. They are extremely small - about 70 microns in diametre - and until the invention of electron microscopes in the 1930's their existance had only been inferred. 

To create copies of themselves they need a host cell with the necessary reproductive mechanisms. Over the millennia viruses have evolved the necessary mechanisms to penetrate cells, much like spermatozoa, and inject their DNA or RNA and capture the host's replication mechanisms so that the infected cell begins manufacturing thousands of virion (virus particle) clones of the invader. These then capture other nearby cells in the host animal or plant; or in similar bacteria.  Huge numbers of infected cells are usually destroyed in the process, sometimes killing the plant or animal.

 

Coronavirus particles (yellow) on the surface of a dying cell (that produced them)
Niaid/National Institutes of Health/Science Photo Library (from 
https://www.newscientist.com)

 

But animals plants and bacteria have become familiar with this threat and have in turn evolved means of dealing with or living with viruses to the extent that some are exploited for the benefit of the host.

In turn viruses evolve new strategies to perpetuate their reproduction. Thus new viruses arise from time to time, sometimes jumping from one species to another when an opportunity arises.

Many animals, including humans, have an immune system that has a memory of harmful viruses and means of neutralising them. Thus, once the animal has been infected and survived, the chances of reinfection are reduced.  Vaccines work by presenting our immune system with a harmless sample that allows it to recognise a particular harmful virus.

Since I first wrote this article the World has suffered a new viral pandemic.  It is a novel corona virus for which we have no established immunity and there is no vaccine.  At the end of June 2020 the Covi-19 virus has already killed half a million people.

It is estimated that this virus will no longer find sufficient vulnerable hosts to spread further after infecting around 70% of the populations in which it is spreading.  It has a case fatality rate of just under 1%, that is, of those who catch it just under one in a hundred die.  

Quarantine restrictions are in place in many countries to protect relatively uninfected areas, with local measures to eliminate 'hot spots'.  But the majority of the world's population, in excess of five billion, are in countries in which it is presently spreading.

Unless a vaccine is available soon it seems inevitable that many millions more will be killed.  The economic consequences are also dire.

 

 

 

 


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