The Trouble with Nature - Part 1
23 September 2021 | Warning - Contains strong language and explicit drug references
It's another two-parter. Part 2 follows immediately after part 1 (uncannily enough). If you can't see part two, click on 'older' (bottom right) or 'contents' (top right).
The current ongoing movement extolling the virtues of natural products is all well and good, but it has its drawbacks. Just because something has come from Nature's bounty doesn't always mean it's good for you. I posit deadly nightshade, death cap mushrooms, puffer fish, and polar bear liver for starters. Then, of course, there are all those cute little pathogens, the likes of bubonic plague, cholera, ebola, malaria and, of course, covid - all products of Nature in all her bounteous glory.(1)
Frequently complementing the 'Natural is good' philosophy is a vituperative denunciation of 'chemicals' and a vehement loathing of anything (and anyone) who has ever been within two hundred metres of a laboratory- fifty kilometres if it's a genetics lab.
"We don't want to put any chemicals in our bodies" they bleat, pitifully. God give me strength. Their whole bodies are made of bloody chemicals. Everything's made of bloody chemicals.
I'll stop that right here. The whole business warrants a dedicated posting of its own, and the subject matter of this one has already been booked.
I have, however, recently experienced the vagaries of natural remedies personally, specifically regarding herbal medicine. Don't get me wrong - I haven't undergone a brainectomy and become an avid follower of the inane pronouncements of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow. Why on Earth would anyone take health advice from a raving narcissistic nutjob whose knowledge and understanding of science and medicine is firmly rooted in the Dark Ages and whose daytime job is dressing up and playing let's pretend?
You may be aware that I was diagnosed with Parkinson's about a year ago. Since then, the medics have been experimenting on me with different combinations of drugs, trying to hone the regime to a best fit for my particular genetic make-up. That's the main problem with treating conditions such as this - you're messing around with some pretty fundamental biochemistry and physiology, and genetic variation means that everybody reacts differently, so the whole tangled web of cause and correlation, effect and side-effect, ends up as an exercise in trial & error cunningly disguised with white coats and clipboards.
Now, I would hate you to think that I've stuck a colander on my head and joined QAnon, but there was one area that the medics couldn't readily investigate because of obstacles put in their way by The Government:
There is some evidence, far from watertight, I admit, that cannabis can alleviate many of the symptoms of Parkinson's, and ease some of the more unpleasant side effects of Parkinson's meds. It's not impossible for researchers to investigate these phenomena, but to be allowed to do so, they have to jump through a byzantine assault course of bureaucratic hoops.
I don't suffer such constraints. So I could set up my own mini Cochrane Review (2) and investigate this fascinating little area of study without having a battalion of Home Office heavies and undercover policemen breathing down my neck and editing the final report so that it better reflects what they think is public opinion but what is, in reality, a hotch-potch of saloon bar prejudices culled from the owners and editors of the tabloid press.
I would like, at this juncture, to pre-empt the inevitable deluge of snide, sneering, cynical accusations of hidden agendas and assure both of our readers that this is in no way an underhand attempt to justify a return to the wayward hedonistic habits of my gloriously mis-spent youth; a feeble and disingenuous ploy to give some moral credence to my lapse back into indolent stonerhood. Before this current apostasy, I had spent 45 years without so much as a tantalising whiff of the stuff.
Mind you, neither was it an altruistic and unbiased attempt to establish objective scientific fact.
Not with a sample size of one.
And not even single blind, let alone double blind.
And no way of accurately measuring dosage.
Or objective, accurate and repeatable means of measuring effect.
Nope. All in all, the whole enterprise serves as an unsurpassable example of truly appalling experimental design.
"So why do it then, you plonker?" I hear you ask, your voices straining with hoarse incredulity. That, mes petites chouchous, is a very good question, and one to which I will respond as soon as I can think up an answer that's even half-plausible. Don't hold your collective breaths.
However, to return grudgingly to the narrative, consider point 3 in the above list of omissions, failings, and faux pas, namely no way of accurately measuring dosage. This is not, primarily, a matter of a lack of suitable equipment - accurate balances and all the other equipment essential to carrying out a full titre - although that certainly doesn't help. No, the major problem here is that I was working with natural materials and natural materials are, by their very, well, nature, inconsistent. Every time something reproduces, a load of genetic cock-ups (3) occur, resulting in genetic variation.
This is a good thing as it gives evolution something to get its teeth into, but it's a pain in the arse if you're trying to measure out doses of dope.
The sensible course of action here (which, surprisingly, I adopted) is to start low and gradually build up. This was not made any easier by our chosen means of administration, namely, to make a fridge-full of weed-enhanced chocolate brownies and to weigh out the doses on kitchen scales which were accurate +/- 2g (If we were lucky). Nevertheless, we persevered and established the most effective method of preparation and the optimum dosage for maximum suppression of tremor and least psychoactive effect (4).
Successive subsequent batches of raw material produced pretty consistent results, and therein lay the seeds of my downfall. I grew blasé and hubristically confident. My impatience was my Nemesis. Historically, I had employed a dose escalation regime, starting with one gramme of cookie, which is about the size of a communion wafer, or a rose petal if you object to the religious reference. When this had no effect, which was always, I tried 3g the next day, then 5 etc until it had the desired effect. This was invariably between 11 and 13 grammes of cookie, equivalent to about 1/12 of a gramme of cannabis bud, which is about 1½ sunflower seeds worth.
Admirably anally retentive though this procedure may be, it is not without its snags. Primary amongst these is that all calculations are founded on the total mass of plant material, not on the mass of the active ingredients. These latter values could be easily obtained were we to lash out five years' worth of pensions on a mass spectrometer and a gas chromatograph. Powerful though these toys are, they were unable to survive Liz's power of veto, and we had to resort to back-of-the-envelope calculations and educated guesswork.
Another irritation was that with each new batch, we had a fallow period of a week until the dosage built up to effective levels. This wouldn't do at all, so we (= 'I') decided to give the first four days dosage a miss and start at 7g, half the normal effective dose, thus saving over half the fallow time. All we had to do was make up the cannabis butter with the new batch as usual and start the process at 7g of cookie, only a sunflower seed's-worth of flower buds.
What could possibly go wrong?
(1) OK - the origins of covid are as yet moot. We'll leave it in both camps pro tem.
(2) The Cochrane Foundation is the gold-standard test for medical research. If a theory, study, claim, or piece of research is supported by The Cochrane Foundation, then you can be pretty confident in it.
(3) or should the plural be 'cocks-up'?
(4) Ironically, this approach is in diametric opposition to what my intentions would have been fifty-odd years ago.
The Trouble with Nature - Part 2
23 September 2021 | or Everything's Going to Pot
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot, as it happens.
If you cast your mind back to the opening salvos of this sordid little tale, you will recall me blethering on about natural genetic variation. Well, it seems that I don't even listen to myself.
We cooked up a batch using the latest delivery from UberSpliffs and I took a seven gramme slice of cookie before setting about preparing dinner. I first noticed that there was something out of the ordinary going on about 20 minutes later. This in itself was unusual as previous batches had taken between 40 minutes and an hour and a half to kick in. Liz asked me something and I turned to face her. As my head and eyes turned, the room lagged behind, only to suddenly speed up and overtake me before springing back, overshooting, and finally settling down in the right place. Needless to say, I found this rather disorientating. I shook my head to try to clear it. This was not the wisest decision I've ever made. Never mind, the sensation of being unpleasantly like being drunk (1) passed after a couple of minutes and something approaching normality returned. I finished preparing the starter and poured the drinks.
I knew something had gone seriously awry when I returned my glass, unsipped, to the table. Not even a Leffe Brune tempted me. Several attempts at conversation petered out when my tightly reasoned (and characteristically opinionated) monologues descended into gibberish. I started to worry that Liz might think I was having a stroke. Or that I had unaccountably decided to conclude the discussion in Klingon.(2)
Then things really started to get weird. Whatever this stuff was, it had to be the most hallucinatory substance I've ever come across, more so than LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. The strange thing was that the hallucinations weren't visual, or auditory - no distorted faces or phantom voices. This stuff played fast and loose with basic concepts of identity and self. Primarily, it distorted my sense of time, my sense of self and my sense of setting, both physical and social.
It started in a mundane, yet bizarre, way; I had an overwhelming and disproportionately vivid sense that I was wearing a hat. I knew I wasn't. I could see in the mirror that I wasn't. I repeatedly tested this surreal sensation by patting the top of my head with the flat of my hand. Nope - definitely no hat. Liz's mental equanimity was not helped one iota by this strange tic that I appeared to have developed. This was rapidly followed by a low level, but persistent, background sense that there were three of us there in the room.
The real scary humdinger, though, was the time distortion. This was erratic, disturbing and yet fascinating at the same time. It seemed to me that my mental processes chugged steadily along at a constant rate. The world around me, though, was all over the place. About 50% of the time the two worlds coincided and coexisted, if not in harmony, then at least in a state of truce. After an hour or so I started to get used to it, but when it first happened it scared the bejasus out of me. I was, by this time, laying on the sofa, while poor Liz was left trying to square the circle on our little local difficulty. She got up and went to the kitchen. As my eyes followed her, she seemed to progressively slow down, not in a jerky fashion á la old black & whites, but smoothly and elegantly like a modern slo-mo. As she approached the kitchen she slowed right down and finally froze motionless. Every aspect of the room now took on the aspect of a still 3D photograph. The wall clock remained motionless, as did my watch. Still my thoughts continued to race. It was impossible for me, in my altered state, to conjure up any real idea as to how long this tableau vivant lasted. I had the brainwave of counting my pulse and estimating the time from that, but I lost track at doo humble and threebly sticks.
After an indeterminate period of stasis, the rest of the world kicked itself back into gear. Everything started moving again, slowly at first, then accelerating. Mimicking the visual phenomenon at the start, it overshot, leaving Bobbyworld trudging along in its wake at plod factor one. It oscillated around Bob Standard Time for a bit until the two universes matched up enough to settle into an uneasy truce.
These time distortion episodes recurred with increasing frequency, which gave me the opportunity to practice and hone my heart rhythm-based timing ploy. Still no luck, although my best effort got as far as sticks bumble and toobly jive before I completely lost the plot.
When all this nonsense started, I was quite sanguine about it all, and viewed the whole, bizarre business with a mixture of calm, detached fascination, and smug, sardonic amusement. OK, this was orders of magnitude more psychoactive than anything I had previously experienced, but it was received wisdom that it was impossible to get a fatal overdose of cannabis. The only way, it was generally agreed, that dope could kill you was if 20 kilos of it landed on your head from a great height.
All I needed to do, I told myself, was to lay back, enjoy the ride, and wait for the bloody stuff to wear off - shouldn't take more than a couple of hours. In response to this challenge, it intensified its time distorting activities. Then it started to play dirty, to nibble away at my sense of self and my deep-seated assumptions about the constancy of the world around me.
According to no lesser authority than The Journal of Neuroscience, "The cannabinoid (CB) system is a key neurochemical mediator of anxiety and fear learning in both animals and humans. The anxiolytic effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, are believed to be mediated through direct and selective agonism of CB1 receptors localized within the basolateral amygdala, a critical brain region for threat perception. However, little is known about the effects of THC on amygdala reactivity in humans." (3)
Glad I told you that? Thought you might be. In English: THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. It interferes with connections in the part of the brain that evaluates possible threats. As a result, it reduces fear and anxiety.
Well it didn't bloody reduce mine.
In a brief interval when the time distortions paused for breath, the clock indicated that this nonsense had been going on for nearly three hours and was showing no signs of subsiding. If anything, it was intensifying. This was somewhat in conflict with my expectations, and all my carefully repressed worries, anxieties and fears took the opportunity to bubble up from my grubby little subconscious. OK, dope can't kill you, but what if this wasn't dope? What if it doesn't abate and I'm left in this pathetic state long-term, or even permanently? That's the problem with unregulated supply chains.
Having worked myself up into a frenzy of doubt, fear and self-loathing, I was in no condition to deal with the coup de grâce - serial room 101.(4) This is a tactic of such ingenious sadism that Torquemada himself would have been jealous. Dig, probe, and pry into the deepest recesses of your victim's psyche until you know every night terror, every secret fear, every shameful indiscretion, every soul-crushing failure. Then make him truly believe that they are, in all their full horror, being visited upon him. It doesn't matter a jot whether it is real or an illusion, as long as he believes that it is real. He will suffer equally, and illusions are cheaper.
I certainly believed that whichever one was current was real. They culminated in my Winston Smith moment, which took advantage of my desperately needing a pee. As my physical co-ordination at this time verged on paralysis, Liz had to help me get off of the couch and traverse the eight metres or so to the bathroom. As I looked in the mirror, the setting switched. I was no longer in our bathroom. In a sudden wave of clarity, I saw that I was in a nursing home, experiencing a brief, agonising flash of lucidity, breaking through the dismal fog of end-stage dementia - probably my greatest dread.
I turned to my carer, who was somehow still Liz, but not Liz. "This is it, isn't it?" I asked. "This is reality." Even in my drug-addled imagination, even as both Liz and not-Liz, she was still, as always, totally incapable of telling a bare-faced lie. She looked me in the eye and nodded.
That cheered me up no end.
What did cheer me up was that this vicious little episode had been the final heave; after over four hours of this purgatory the malign little bastard's influence was beginning to weaken. It was starting to wear off. After another half an hour I was able (with the help of my long-suffering carer) to crawl up the stairs on my hands and knees and collapse into bed. I slept like a baby for ten hours.
And the moral of the story is fourfold:
1. Never underestimate the extent of genetic variation, especially if it's reinforced by selective breeding.
2. He who has knowledge but fails to apply it is a complete dickhead.
3. The intelligent man learns from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others. The complete dickhead learns from neither.
4. Knowing a lot about something in no way precludes a complete dickhead from being a complete dickhead with it. In fact, it frequently makes things worse.
Nevertheless, the stuff does seem to suppress the tremor, so further research is needed, but only under the strict supervision of a responsible adult (like Liz).
Even then, a real, top-notch, complete dickhead can still cock things up.
(1) © Douglas Adams
Ford Prefect: "This is unpleasantly like being drunk!"
Arthur Dent: "What's unpleasant about being drunk?"
Ford Prefect: "Ask a glass of water."
(2) Subsequent discussion of this with Liz elicited the opinion that she hadn't noticed any significant deviation from my normal, usually incomprehensible, standards of discourse
(3) Journal of Neuroscience. 2008 Mar 5; 28(10): 2313-2319.
Cannabinoid Modulation of Amygdala Reactivity to Social Signals of Threat in Humans
K. Luan Phan,et al
(4) This is the real, terrifying room 101, as in '1984', not the occasionally mildly amusing self-promotion vehicle on The Beeb.
A perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire
04 September 2021 | or Out of my league
I blame Chubby Checker. If it hadn't been for The Twist, I'd have learned to dance properly (i,e, with someone rather than at someone) in my formative years, when I had the hormone levels to motivate me, the agility to make it physically attainable and the coordination to make the resulting spectacle less overtly embarrassing than is the case now. "She looked me over
Prior to The Twist, in the days of the Local Palais, you needed to learn to dance with a partner if you wanted any degree of success in the human mate-selection ritual as carried out in sweaty dance halls and tacky-carpeted, eardrum-shattering discotheques. Pre-twist, (1960) you needed to be able to jive. Post-twist but pre Saturday Night Fever (1977) all you needed to do was stand in one spot and wiggle various bits of your anatomy.
Once SNF hit the screens, things got a little more difficult. You had to do all the twisty wiggling stuff, but it had to be co-ordinated, and you had to strike dramatic poses at intervals. Just to make things even more difficult, you were expected to do all this in time to the music. If this was all a bit too taxing for you, you were best off getting into the emerging punk rock genre, where all you needed to do was shout, spray copious amounts of spittle about, and lay on your back twitching your arms and legs in the air. Post punk & SNF all you needed was to get off your face on MDMA. Everyone was so luvved-up that you'd be in with a chance of pulling even if you looked like Johnny Vegas, sounded like Janet Street-Porter, smelt like a bad case of giardia, and had the dentition of Shane MacGowan
I had quite happily come to terms with my singular lack of expertise in the terpsichorean ambit - it was yet another of those things that I had resigned myself to as being one of the many unavoidable gaps in my life experience.
Not so Liz. She is made of sterner stuff and has, for some considerable time, been hassling me to learn to jive. I had countered these overtures with passive resistance, regretfully bemoaning the absence of classes teaching Jive, and assuring of her my deep and heartfelt anguish at the unavailability of certificated training courses for such a valuable pair bonding activity. Samba, salsa, tango mambo, even capoeira and the like all seemed to be well catered for. Foxtrot, pasa doble, jitterbug and military two-step? Ten a penny. American line dancing? Couldn't move for the buggers. Morris dancing? Couldn't hear yourself think over the jangling bells and fluttering handkerchiefs, but jive? Nary a peep. "If only we could find a jive class, dear heart" I would declaim, shamelessly, "I would be down there hammering on the door before you could say 'American Spin.' " Liz, however, circumvented my cynical machinations. She found a jive club in Javea that had a beginners' class and called my bluff. Cornered, I feigned enthusiasm and we went along.
It took us a while to find the place, and when we did, first impressions were not encouraging. It was on the outskirts of the less salubrious part of town, down a rutted, unlit track, hemmed in on both sides by tall chain-link fencing. The place itself originally served the mothballed go-kart track that sat alongside it. We found the door and tentatively walked inside.
The interior was even more dismal than the approach road. We peered through the Stygian gloom, trying to get our bearings. Ignoring the two pinch-faced alcoholics sitting at the bar mumbling bitter, disjointed, incoherent profanities to no-one in particular, we scanned further into the interior, where we struck lucky. The jive club was gathered in all its motley ex-patriate glory, on the dance floor.
We walked over, an action that proved an assault on all the senses. Everywhere reeked of old tobacco smoke and stale beer, a combination that had, over the years, laid a fine dark patina over all the ceiling, walls, furnishings, bar staff and clientele, accentuating the general air of seedy decrepitude. Every lifted foot from the carpet sounded like Velcro being ripped open as we struggled to overcome the adhesive power of decades of spilt beer and Cuba Libres. I felt like a rat struggling out of a glue-trap. The wooden dance floor continued the theme with patches of high adhesion, but these were now interspersed with lethal, freshly christened areas with coefficients of friction on a par with that of wet fingers holding a bar of soap liberally doused in baby oil. (1) We introduced ourselves and surreptitiously took stock.
There are about one million British ex-pats living in Spain. From our experience they are generally drawn from a fairly limited demographic. The majority are retired or of independent means. Servicing this majority is a stratum of ex-pat entrepreneurs running businesses such as bars, restaurants, British food shops, estate agents, swimming pool installers and development companies. Servicing both strata are a rag-bag of assorted chancers scraping a living from their (usually imaginary) abilities as electricians, plumbers, hairdressers, satellite dish installers, fitness instructors or Feng Shui advisors. In general, the only ones that manage to show any real talent for their professed occupations are the time share touts, most of whom would make Arthur Daley look like Forest Gump.
Javea has a substantial ex-pat community, the majority of which are British (2). The rest is made up of Dutch, French, German, Scandinavian, East European and Russian. Despite its multinational membership base, the ex-pat throng has a recognisable demographic profile.
Our new-found friends fitted this profile of being over 60, retired, of independent means and primarily British, with the exception of a sizeable contingent on the distaff side, who were in their forties/fifties or so, glammed up to the eyebrows, and Russian. The male detachment stood in stark contrast to the bunch of self-assured women standing opposite them. Looking at the confident, detached, open looks of appraisal on the women's faces, a Paul Simon song popped into my head:
And I guess she thought
I was all right.
All right in a sort of a limited way
For an off-night."
It would have certainly had to have been an off night. In poignant contrast to the carefully clad & coiffed, meticulously made-up and artfully accessorised women, a good 50% of the men looked as if they'd just been rudely roused from the depths of their afternoon nap. Nattily attired in rumpled cardies left unbuttoned over baggy trousers and vests, some of them had even come in their slippers. I was half expecting to find one or two still in their dressing gowns. They stood, unshaven, unwashed and unkempt, exuding a dejected air of utter defeat and learned helplessness, hunched forward with their hands clasped protectively over their genitalia as they shuffled across the slippy-sticky floor. My gait and posture are better than that, and I've got Parkinson's.
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with their song still in them." (3)
The non-Russian women were obviously those wives who had managed, like Liz, to bully, blackmail or bribe their reluctant husbands into taking part in this exercise in public self-humiliation. They looked at the Slavic interlopers with undisguised hostility. I don't see why; their assembled menfolk weren't exactly a cornucopia of testosterone-fuelled masculinity and were hardly trophy spouse material. Nah! I reckoned they were safe.
As was I. Glancing across the dance floor, I glimpsed a new figure through the gloom. "Another one" I thought to myself "Sad, slouched wrinkly loser." Shame it turned out to be a mirror.
The fiasco started off OK(ish). We began with the aptly named First Move. Martin (4) & his lovely wife Jackie talked us through it and then walked us through it. First Move - sounds benign, simple and forgiving huh?
It has 16 or so steps apiece, 4 changes in direction, and two under-arm turns, one clockwise and one anticlockwise. As if that wasn't bad enough, we had to learn some sort of arcane hand-to-hand braille whereby I was supposed to relay instructions to Liz as to what we were doing next. There was a significant problem with this, namely that 'next' would inevitably be 'same again' as this was the only move we knew. In addition, what's with all this soft tissue morse code business anyway? Our heads were only centimetres apart. All I had to do was whisper the moves in her ear: "American Spin in three - two, three and turn, two, three and back." Lot easier.
Nevertheless, we persevered and vaguely got the hang of it. "Great", we thought. "Half an hour's practice and we'll have this one cracked."
I neglected to mention that we were arranged in two concentric circles, women on the inside facing out and the men vice versa. Just as Liz and I were starting to get the hang of things, Martin called out 'Rotate!' and the rest of the women all moved one space clockwise, leaving Liz scrabbling to catch up.
Liz got the club Lothario, who was notable (and noticeable) for a number of reasons:
He was under 60. (Just)
He was clean shaven, well-scrubbed, appropriately well-dressed and generally kempt.
He could dance.
It turned out he was a past jive champion (East of England) (and bits of the Midlands).
I got Anoushka. Well, I think it's more accurate to say that she got me. I, too, had been thrown by the 'Rotate' instruction, and was gormlessly turning in circles, wondering where Liz had got to, when one of the glammed up Russian squad glided into my field of view. She stopped about half a metre in front of me and struck a pose, right arm in the air, left hand on angled hip, with her flexed, bestockinged, left knee protruding through the slit in her dress and pointing straight at my groin. She reinforced this entrance by holding eye-contact for about two seconds longer than was really comfortable and extending her left hand to me.
I froze in panic like a rabbit in the headlights, so she decided to save the situation by taking my hand and jerking me sharply towards her. My head snapped back, and my neck made a noise like someone screwing up bubble-wrap. Just as the pins and needles in my limbs were on the point of triggering quadriplegia, she changed tactics and started throwing me around the dance floor like an overgrown rag doll. I recovered my composure and held out my right arm, which she took in her left and deftly pirouetted in, winding first her arm, then mine, around her. She ended up with her nose almost touching mine, made prolonged eye contact and raised one eyebrow. I trod on her foot.
Recovering valiantly, I teetered for a second before taking up the start position for the next move, only to feel her hands clamp on my shoulders from behind before snapping me round through 180o so that I was facing the right way.
The torturous indignity continued unabated. We were supposed to be executing a move called 'octopus', but I reckoned that Anoushka was going for two falls, two submissions or a knockout. Her technique is difficult to explain, but if you've seen those street entertainers who have a weighted dummy sewn into their outfit, which they then throw about and dance with,/flirt with/fight with/indecently assault then you'll have a pretty good idea. I'm just grateful that we weren't doing a tango.
By the end of the evening, I still only knew the one move, and that barely to the level of 'Just about recognisable'. To cap it all, I felt like I'd just gone the full six rounds with Giant Haystacks. I resolved to give up on this Jive lark and go for something gentler, like alligator wrestling.