What’s The Harm?

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 25 August, 2016. 

These days, when you take a look at social media, you often see people sharing various ‘natural’ cures for diseases, promoting some form of ‘alternative’ medicine, or complaining that a cure for a specific vicious illness is being ‘suppressed.’ This has started to bother me quite a bit over the last few years, and whenever I confront someone about this, their usual response is something to the effect of “Oh, then it won’t hurt to try. What’s the harm?” Well, let’s try to answer that question, shall we?

As Dara O'Briain so famously put it, “Oh, herbal medicine's been around for thousands of years! Indeed it has, and then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became 'medicine'. And the rest of it is just a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri, so knock yourselves out.” So why has alternative medicine become popular? Well, medication and surgery are not a part of alternative medicine, and people tend to fear medication and surgery due to confirmation bias. After all, you only read about surgeries that went wrong, or people who suffered due to strange side effects of medication, and these all sound bad. But that is because the millions who were saved by surgery don’t warrant a news headline. The millions who can now walk and talk due to medication get ignored by the media. 

True, there are risks with surgery and medication, and less with alternative medicine, but that’s mostly because alternative medicine does not work, and thus are not likely to cause any direct harm (not no harm, however!) Any reasonable patient should not have blind faith in a doctor, and be knowledgeable about their health. They should ask questions, and assume nothing. Seek a second or third opinion – not to get an answer you want to hear, but to confirm your diagnosis. Research is every patient’s responsibility – after all, it is your life.

Medical science also cannot always discover the cause of an illness, or relieve its pain. Sometimes when it does, it cannot offer a cure that’s guaranteed to be successful. Alternative medicine then often offers hope, even if it is hopeless. Unfortunately, since it’s not a cure, false hope often kills, whereas a treatment with even a 10% chance of success is better than death.

“But alternative medicine is natural! And cheaper!” Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but natural does not mean good. Some of the most dangerous substances are natural - ricin, abrin, botulinum, and strychnine. And while you could chew White Willow Bark to relieve your headache, medical science has extracted the ingredient that helps for headaches, and put it in a nice aspirin tablet for you to swallow. ‘Alternative’ medicine does not mean equally effective. And being cheap with your health often results in a much shorter, ‘natural’ lifespan.

“But these work! It’s just being supressed by the <insert conspiracy theory buzzword here> because it would make them more profit!” Sigh. So you think a cure would be supressed for money? Would you do that? If yes, then you obviously value money more than human life, and any cure you offer would suffer from that same lack of ethics. If no, then why do you think other people are different from you? People generally all have the same set of ethics required to function in modern society – your claims make no sense. 

Even if they did, consider the following. Not all medical research organisations are for-profit. Researchers and their families can catch these diseases just like anyone else. A billion-dollar profit means nothing if your dying from a disease you could have cured.  You think scientists value money over something such as a Nobel Prize and the acclaim that goes with a cure? In countries with a public health service, what would be the motive there? And wouldn’t health insurance companies be fighting against this, since they have to pay for continual treatment? Have you considered that there’s significant profit to be made from patenting a cure? And since there’s more than one for-profit company, they’d be glad to have a cure that could crater a competitor’s profits?

Well, since alternative medicine doesn’t work (since then it would be medicine), and all it does is provide false hope, then what’s the harm in giving it a try? Well, for one, it is wasting the resources of a person who needs help. Money spent on alternative medicine could instead be ploughed into paying for a scientific cure. This only helps the fraudster who tricked you, and will happily continue to trick the ill long after you’ve gone. It also supports ignorance, which can be downright dangerous. Spreading misinformation to the sick and the needy is both dangerous and unethical, and endangers lives. And of course, the doozy. People will try these ‘alternative’ cures for their diseases instead of actual ones. Telling someone to take these instead of actual evidence-based medicine is the worst kind of evil, as you are actually endangering a human life now. 

At first, it will seem harmless. After all, recommending a homeopathic remedy for someone with diarrhoea will likely do nothing, and diarrhoea will stop eventually.  Homeopathy is nothing but water, after all. Then you get natural detox pills, which in most cases simply causes diarrhoea to imply a ‘detox.’ Yet your liver detoxes your body naturally, and when you ask these practitioners what tests you can do to show the ‘toxicity levels’ before and after, they never give solid answers – because no test has shown that detox works.

And then you get the killers. The people who tell cancer patients to try cannabis oils instead of going to an oncologist. The research into cannabinoids are at a very early stage, and while tests have shown it can prevent some tumours from growing, it has also shown that it can encourage other tumours to grow, harm crucial blood vessels, and interfere with the immune system’s ability to fight those tumours. Research is on-going, and so far has only been done on mice and in test tubes with highly specific doses. Now you want patients to self-medicate without dosages and forgoing proven treatments that lengthen their lifespans? I rather doubt your altruism, and I detest your ethics.

Medical science has enriched all our lives significantly. Sanitation, antibiotics, anaesthesia and vaccines have enabled the human race to live longer and fuller lives. Today, a 72-year old has the same chance of dying as a 30-year old hunter-gatherer ancestor of ours. Since 1900, the global life expectancy has doubled, and today no country in the world has a lower life expectancy than the country with the highest in 1800. Instead of opting for false hope in alternative medicine, try the real hope that medical science has provided for so many.

For Your Information

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 18 August, 2016.

We live in a networked world. Besides our social networks, our societal networks and our friend networks, we’re now in the midst of networking knowledge – or as it is more conventionally known, information networks. But while we’ve only noticed it now, our information networks have grown progressively over millennia, and have only recently reached a critical mass that prompted its acceleration. 

Not much is known on how we first started networking knowledge, but it was impossible before the invention of language.  Archaeologists speculate that symbolic language was first developed by modern humans in Africa in the Middle Stone Age about 200 000 years ago, and when they spread out from Africa about 60 000 years ago, they carried language and symbolic culture with them. 

Language, while quite useful for disseminating knowledge, had one major drawback – it was not recorded. Hence why we need to rely on archaeologists to speculate about its origins, and why that time is referred to as pre-history. But even as the spread of knowledge was finite without a recording medium, it simply required that one push to expand knowledge exponentially. In 4 000 BCE, in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), a breakthrough occurred. For 4000 years, the Mesopotamian civilization had used a primitive form of accounting by storing clay tokens in pots, when a different idea began to take hold. By using a stylus, they engraved symbols on these clay pots to indicate the tokens inside. An idea formed…

Soon they dispensed with the clay pots, for clay tablets, and no longer would tokens be used – marks on the tablet would suffice. Writing was invented, and this form of recording knowledge spread throughout the region. In 2700 BCE, this cuneiform writing had spread to ancient Egypt, and they provided the next breakthrough. The Egyptians developed a set of 24 hieroglyphs to represent syllables of their language, and suddenly not only amounts could be recorded, but language as well! Thoughts and ideas previously only communicated via speech could now be preserved for future generations, and humanity took a great leap forward. We had invented the alphabet!

But clay tablets were brittle, and heavy – they could not be transported safely. Luckily the Egyptians had a solution – papyrus. Sheets of the pith of the papyrus plant could be used to write on, and were significantly lighter, allowing them to be safely transported. Rolled up into scrolls or bound into codices, knowledge could be preserved. Soon efforts were made to collect and index the entire recorded knowledge of mankind, and Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s successors, created the Musaeum of Alexandria, where all the great scholars of the world studied. Their collective knowledge was inscribed on papyrus and stored in the Great Library of Alexandria, where up to 400 000 scrolls were stored at its height. 

Unfortunately, papyrus was not particularly durable, and this was soon evident when the Great Library was destroyed in a fire during Julius Caesar’s siege of Alexandria in 48BCE. But what alternative was there? An answer lurked from the East, where during the Han dynasty in China, a new development emerged in 105 CE. The invention of paper. 

Paper slowly spread west, reaching the Middle East by 750 CE and Egypt by 900 CE. Paper has several advantages over papyrus – not only was is more durable and lasted longer, but it was also much thinner, and much more information could be stored in a much more compact form. This allowed it to travel much further, allowing ideas to spread, and significantly multiplied the amount of information that could be held in libraries. 

With the amount of information now available, a new problem emerged though – for knowledge to be preserved, you had to make a copy of it when you wanted to send it somewhere else. This required laborious manual transcribing, and dramatically increased its cost. A man named Johannes Gutenberg from Germany changed all that. His printing press allowed knowledge to be duplicated en masse, allowing 240 pages to be printed per hour, enabling the mass distribution of knowledge. 

This distribution of knowledge was still physical though, and it took time to distribute knowledge. In 1876 CE, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, a method of sending information over copper, and a short while later, in 1895 CE, Guglielmo Marconi developed another new method of communicating information – radio. And while both were much faster, it rendered much of our old knowledge inaccessible as it was in a different format, and, of course, also reintroduced the age-old problem of recording the distributed information. 

Fortunately, necessity is the mother of invention, and soon there was a need to record a lot of information coming in for review – war. Specifically, World War II. With the radio now a battlefield instrument relaying knowledge back to governments, a machine was required to capture and correlate this information. A young man named Alan Mathison Turing was working to decipher Axis cryptographic codes, and with his team, developed an Automatic Computation Engine, the key to the Colossus computers that did the code-breaking. 

But these new-fangled ‘computers’ as they were called were not only capable of receiving this new electronic and radio information, it was also capable of storing it, and most importantly, capable of making copies of that information that could be sent to other computers. Still, they were huge, cumbersome devices that were difficult to use. Fortunately, our previous methods of spreading information far and wide were still working, and soon progress was made. 

Given their obvious utility, research was poured into computers, and they were made smaller, faster, and cheaper. The technology spread, and the need arose to share information amongst these computers – after all, a single nuclear bomb could take out one, and a nation would lose all that stored data! The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA/ARPA) decided to use the copper wire from the telephone system, which by now had criss-crossed their nation, and connect these computers in a ‘network’ that could not be taken down by a single failure. This ARPAnet grew quickly from 4 computers to over 100 000 as computers started to appear across their nation. Soon commercial entities wished to linked their computers in as well, and ARPAnet was rebranded as the Internet. 

Computers have continued to get smaller, and today, most of us are carrying one in our pocket – one that can make calls like Bell’s telephone, but using Marconi’s radio to communicate. And more and more of them got connected to the Internet, which means every one of them is capable of accessing the information stored on another anywhere on the planet.  We’ve become so adept at networking knowledge that we now have devices in our pockets that can access to sum total of human knowledge at the drop of a hat. Our information networks have given us access to knowledge that used to be the preserve of kings of old, and it is only accelerating. It is time we started treating our new-found power with the respect it deserves.

A Nuclear Future

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 11 August, 2016. 

This week, 71 years ago, the nuclear age was ushered in. It was the last days of World War II. Japan, already militarily defeated by June 1945, with its once mighty Imperial Navy in tatters, and its air force now non-existent, was near collapse. With no oil available since April 1945, the Japanese were willing to surrender on any terms, as long as their emperor was not touched. So on 6 August 1945, the Americans gave their response. A 15 kiloton nuclear bomb, detonated above Hiroshima. 90 000 people were killed immediately, with 40 000 injured. Only 20 000 were soldiers. Three days later, a 21 kiloton nuclear bomb killed 37 000 people in Nagasaki, and injured 43 000. Nagasaki had no military contingent, and most of those injured in these two bombings succumbed to radiation sickness, dying in agony. The nuclear age was ushered in by eventually killing 200 000 Japanese civilians.

With such an inauspicious start, it is no wonder that the scientific advances from nuclear research is often overlooked. After all, its first invention was a weapon of mass destruction, dropped on enemy civilians. And that resulted in its first side-effect as well – radiation sickness. When high amounts of ionizing radiation hit living cells, it degrades the DNA and other key molecular structures, affecting the ability of these cells to divide as normal. 

This presents with several visible symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain and a loss of appetite. The skin reddens for a short while, but by the time that subsides, the internal damage is much worse. Your blood cells start dying, and cannot be replaced, resulting in aplastic anaemia. And even your nervous system is affected, resulting in dizziness and headaches, and finally a decreased level of consciousness. Death can follow in 3 to 30 days, and even if you survive, your odds of contracting cancer increases markedly. 

But while the nuclear age has ushered in some true horrors, it has also been helpful. For although it could cause disease as mentioned above, it has been invaluable to our efforts to heal humanity as well. Nuclear medicine and radiology is used in medical diagnostics to determine health, monitor illnesses and follow the progress of treatment. It is extensively used in medical imaging, such as X-Rays, and even I had a nuclear procedure when I had my angiogram, where I was injected with nuclear isotopes to map out my cardiovascular system. Nuclear radiation is further used for treatment of diseases such as cancer. It is estimated that almost a third of all procedures in modern hospitals use nuclear technology. 

But it goes further than that. Irradiation is used to sterilize bones before transplants and equipment before surgery. It’s used to sterilise medical products such as bandages, catheters, cotton tips and more. Given its use in the medical community, it should therefore be no surprise that irradiation is used much further! It’s quite prevalent in the food industry as well, where food is irradiated to kill microorganisms and keep food fresh longer – just like pasteurisation. But unlike pasteurisation, which uses heat, irradiation does this without changing the taste, appearance, texture or nutritional value of food. Since it does not induce radioactivity in the food, it remains safe to eat.

It is further used in agriculture as a form of insect control, instead of pesticides. By sterilizing insects, no insecticides need to be used – a much more environmentally friendly approach! And it’s not just in agriculture that nuclear technology has proven useful. It’s used in mining to test for mineral deposits. In industrial applications, pipelines can be tested for blockages, and welds can be tested non-destructively. This is extensively used in the construction of airplanes and ships. Radionuclide gauges are used extensively in industrial processes to test thickness and strength, ranging from steel manufacturing to testing the levels of liquid in soft drink cans.

Perhaps the most visible technology that would not exist without nuclear science is the mobile phones and computers we see all around us these days – the silicon chips inside would be impossible to make without nuclear technology. This continues into our homes. The venerable microwave oven uses radiation to heat food, and smoke detectors rely on nuclear technology to work. 

Of course, the most well-known result of the nuclear age is nuclear power. Nuclear power has no greenhouse gas emissions during generation, and it remains vastly more efficient than alternative energy sources. In fact, only 28g of uranium produces as much energy as is produced from 100 tons of coal. And while the cost per kWh is a bit more expensive than utilizing low-cost fossil fuels, these costs do not take into account the negative externalities of carbon fuel usage – like the costs of climate change, or the environmental damage by pollution. Nuclear power is also more reliable than current alternative power sources, but it is not without its own issues. The costs of disposing the waste of nuclear fuel remains contentious, as well as determining where this highly dangerous and radioactive waste should be stored. 

It should thus be clear that the Nuclear Age is here to stay, and it can bring many benefits. With Namibia’s Uranium reserves, and our government searching for ways to jump-start our economy out of poverty, the solution should be clear. After all, the Ministry of Mines and energy has had a Nuclear Fuel Cycle policy for years that’s just waiting to be implemented. Namibia is already a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, with our own established Atomic Energy Board, and supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency. We have constitutional protections against nuclear waste, so our people are protected. And a nuclear industry also necessitates the development of a skilled, high-tech, well-educated workforce – the development of which has been a proven boon to many a society, as it can be to us.

The nuclear age might not have started the best way, but that is no reason to let it languish. We here in Namibia have a light that could shine for our entire region. When we come together, there is nothing we can’t do. We may sometimes falter, we may stumble and we may fall, but when we come together we have a kind of magic that can see us through. Together, we will always shine. Let us work together, so that this will be our nuclear time.

Too Many Pinkies In The Pie

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 4 August, 2016.

This week, the New Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework (NEEEF) once again made waves in the Namibian news. The draft NEEEF Bill seems to be a bit opposed to the objectives of NEEEF, in that it nowhere seems to aim to create ‘vehicles for empowerment,’ nor does it seem to be ‘Actively guarding against the repugnant tendencies of window-dressing, favoritism, nepotism and self-enrichment,’ and instead of ‘Removing barriers of socio-economic advancement in order to enable previously disadvantaged persons to access productive assets and opportunities of empowerment,’ it seems to be rather erecting barriers.

It also does not seem to slot in well with the Government’s Harambee Prosperity Plan, which aims to lift all Namibians into prosperity based on an inclusive Namibian House, united in its cause. With our Namibian fight against poverty, it seems we sometimes lose sight of our real goal, and we rather seek to address its symptoms. 

There are, of course, several policies one can implement to alleviate poverty, but none of them work without economic growth. It is often said that economic growth will alleviate poverty, but this is not strictly true for economic growth alone – it will only alleviate poverty if the lowest wages rise faster than the average wage, and if benefits and pensions are kept in line with average wage increases. Economic growth, however, creates new job opportunities, and that is how poverty gets alleviated. It is quite well known that the biggest cause of poverty is in fact unemployment! But the NEEEF proposal does naught to increase our available jobs in Namibia – it simply seeks to redistribute the available jobs. Now you’ll have unproven decision makers heading up our existing institutions, which surely cannot bode well for their performance. 

Perhaps our government needs to take a look elsewhere – at the reasons why we are struggling to create jobs. This, as it turns out, was not a difficult exercise for me, as the World Bank regularly publishes these types of analyses. In its Doing Business 2016 report on Namibia, we came under the spotlight, and it was not good. Out of 189 countries, Namibia came 101st on its ease of doing business.

In particular, there are several sub-sections where Namibia should mightily improve if we want our Harambee Prosperity Plan to work. In terms of tackling unemployment, perhaps the most important of these would be the ease with which one can start a new business. Namibia ranked 164th out of 189 countries. 

To start a new business, there are 10 procedures that need to be followed, which takes 66 days. Compare that to New Zealand, the best, where there is only a single procedure that needs to be followed, and it takes but half a day to register a business. Would it not be better for Namibia’s unemployment if this wall were not in front of every entrepreneur that wished to enter the economy?

Registering a property takes 8 procedures, and 52 days – placing us 174th out of 189 countries. It also on average costs 13.7% of the property’s value. With the world leaders having only a single property procedure taking a single day, and with it costing zero in Saudi Arabia, is it any wonder we’re complaining about land provision when it takes this long and costs so much simply to register it?

To simply pay a company’s taxes requires 27 payments a year, and requires 302 hours of work to complete. While this only makes us 93rd in the world, that still means a new entrepreneur needs to work almost two months of a year just on his taxes! This is time not spent building his business!

For trading across borders, I came across an even more startling statistic, which could explain why the Bank of Namibia is constantly warning our citizens that our imports exceed our exports. In order to export from Namibia, it requires 120 hours to ensure border compliance, or two working weeks. It requires an additional 90 hours to ensure the documentation is completed for that export. So approximately 26 working days is required to export from Namibia. Now compare that to the 6 hours required to ensure goods are compliant to import, with only 3 hours required for import documentation. 

And to enforce a contract here in Namibia, it takes 460 days to be heard by the court (only 150 days in Singapore), while it would cost 35.8% of the claim (9% in Iceland). There are several more statistics that relate to the ease of doing business that increase our score compared to these, like Getting Credit (59th), Getting Electricity (76th), Dealing with construction permits (66th) and Protecting Minority Investors (66th). 

If we as a nation wish to alleviate poverty and unemployment, it seems clear where we should start. The NEEEF does not seem to take us on that path, but it is still under consultation, and with the proper input, perhaps we can steer it to solve our embedded problems, instead of simply shifting the problems to another section of our economic pie. 

I know that we as a nation want to do all that we can. We want to make a contribution – we want to be a part of the plan. Our destiny seems uncertain, and that can be hard to take, but our path will become much clearer with every new choice we make. Patience is never easy; we can all understand wanting more. But we also know how hard it is to wait, as a nation, to spread out our wings and soar. But we are here for a reason – as a nation, we are gifted, and we are strong. We know we belong here, and we’ll solve our problems. Our time is coming soon. As the sun rises, so does the moon. As love finds a place in every heart, we are a nation. We’ll play our part.