We Are The Same But Different

The human race as it exists today are, in very broad terms, all the same, as biologically we are ‘Homo sapiens’. Yet we are also very slightly different, each and every single one of us, even twins and other multiple births, especially as we grow and develop. Humans are the most abundant and widespread species of primate on Earth, our basic structure comprising a main body containing various organs for supporting life as well as holding the basic skeletal frame. Attached to it are feet and legs, enabling the body to move around and two arms and hands to reach out and grab anything, from food to tools to hand-holds that may be helpful. On top of the body is a head, containing other organs that enable sight and sound, taste, smell as well as the ingestion of food and drink. It incorporates breathing, allowing bodily fluids like blood to receive life-giving oxygen and expel unwanted gases. Also in the head is the brain, which controls the whole system, even whilst the body is at rest. The brain has also enabled the development of advanced tools, culture and language. We are highly social beings and tend to live in complex social structures composed of many cooperating and competing groups, from family and kinship networks to political states. Social interactions between humans have established a wide variety of values, social states and rituals which generally bolster human society but also give rise to war-like conditions at times and at various levels. Curiosity and the human desire to understand and influence the environment and to explain as well as manipulate phenomena have motivated the human development of science, philosophy, religion, mythology and other fields of knowledge. Research suggests that Homo sapiens emerged around 300,000 years ago on Earth, evolving from ‘Homo heidelbergensis’ and migrating out of Africa, gradually replacing local populations of archaic humans. For most of our history all humans have been nomadic hunter-gatherers, but the Neolithic Revolution which began in South-west Asia around 13,000 years ago saw the emergence of agriculture and permanent human settlement. As populations have become larger and denser, various forms of governance have developed within and between communities and a number of civilisations have risen and fallen. Humans have continued to expand, with a global population of over 7.9 billion in July 2021.

Genes and the environment have influenced human biological variation in visible characteristics, physiology, disease susceptibility, mental abilities, body size and life span. Though humans vary in many ways such as genetic and physical features, humans on average are over 99% similar, with the most genetically diverse populations from Africa. In terms of gender, at birth humans usually occur in or represent one of two distinct forms with certain features. At puberty, they then develop secondary sex characteristics where only the male makes the necessary development in order to fertilise the female, whilst only the female is capable of pregnancy and undergo menopause, then becoming infertile around the age of 50 years. The actual nature of male and female gender roles has varied historically, and many challenges to a predominant gender have recurred in different societies over the years. In terms of sustenance, we are omnivorous, capable of consuming a wide variety of both plant and animal material, we have used fire and other forms of heat to prepare and cook our food for a great many years. We can survive for up to eight weeks without food and three or four days without water. Human lives are generally characterised by activity during the day, with a period of sleep or general inactivity at night. Having said that, over a period of years technology has altered that. On average we sleep around seven to nine hours per day. Childbirth is dangerous, with a high risk of complications and death and often both the mother and the father provide care for their children, who are quite helpless at birth. Within our brain we have a large and highly developed prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain associated with higher functions. We are quite intelligent beings, capable of retaining information for either a short time in our short-term memory, also known as primary or active memory and having it readily available for a short period of time. Then there is our long-term memory which is divided between semantic and episodic memory. Our semantic memory refers to the general world knowledge that we have accumulated throughout our lives and this general knowledge, comprising facts, ideas, meaning and concepts is intertwined in experience and dependent on our culture. It is distinct from episodic memory, which is how we store and recall our experiences and specific events that occur during our lives, from which we can recreate at any given point. For instance, semantic memory might contain information about what a cat is, whereas episodic memory might contain a specific memory of petting a particular cat. The latter is also of usual, everyday events such as times, location geography, associated emotions and other contextual information that can be explicitly stated or conjured. It is the collection of past, personal experiences which occurred at particular times and places, for example the party on your tenth birthday. It amazes me how powerful this capability is, but here in the Care Home I am in at present I can also see the direct effects on individuals when some of it is lost. From my research I have learned that the term “episodic memory” was coined by Endel Tulving in 1972, referring to the distinction between remembering and knowing, with remembering a feeling that is located in the past, whilst knowing is of course actual factual recollection.

Memory Lane

But in addition to comprehension of memory, we have a self-awareness of ourselves and the world around us although to imagine just how vast our world, our universe, actually is I think is for the most part beyond us. However the human mind is capable of introspection, of private thought and imagination. We can form views on existence and sadly over the years some have used this capacity for their own ends, having others believe things that are completely untrue despite them being presented with logical facts. Having said that, our brains have enabled some to make great technological advancements and complex tool development possible through reason and the transmission of knowledge to future generations. Language, art and trade are defining characteristics of humans and long-distance trade routes may have led to cultural explosions and resource distribution that have given humans an advantage over other similar species. The down-side to that though may have also helped to create the health problems we have experienced in the past, such as measles, polio, mumps etc and which we are experiencing today with Covid-19. I have no doubt that more changes will occur in the future. Back in Biblical times they may not have known about DNA, but it is clear that they learned that interbreeding was not the thing to do and often problems such as deformities could occur, though I believe Nature did and does still play a part in managing that. If we look back over even the last few hundred or so years, I believe many families bore many more children than we do now because it was expected that some simply would not survive. As a child in the church choir I would listen to to vicar’s sermon on a Sunday, but if I couldn’t follow it I would read the prayer book and on one occasion I found an item called ‘A Table of Kindred and Affinity wherein whosoever are related are forbidden by the Church of England to marry together.’ There it states that no man or woman may marry people they are directly related to by blood and it gives a list of such relationships. So even before we knew about our blood and such things to the level we do now, it was known that certain things should not be done. Scientists will continue to research, learn and develop new knowledge as well as skills but it should surely continue to be for the greater good of all life, of all things on this planet. We owe it to ourselves and future generations not to be selfish and to remember who and what has gone on before us. We cannot know what will occur in the future but we can at the very least be mindful of how much we owe to the past. As I have said before, this is a transitory life and no-one can live on Earth forever but no matter what our colour, creed, belief or our location, we are all human and an integral part of all that which exists on this planet.

This week my writings are a little shorter than usual, I have not been at my best so a doctor put me on a course of antibiotics and I am much better now. But as a result, I have been sleeping a bit more than usual and that happens with me! So this week I will close with what I think is a useful reminder for us all.

Learning to live.
One day, the donkey spoke to the tiger.
The donkey told the tiger, “The grass is blue.”
The tiger replied, “No, the grass is green.”
The discussion became heated, and the two decided to submit the issue to arbitration, so they approached the lion.
As they approached the lion on his throne, the donkey started screaming:
”Your Highness, isn’t it true that the grass is blue?”
The lion replied: “If you believe it is true, the grass is blue.”
The donkey rushed forward and continued: “The tiger disagrees with me, contradicts me and annoys me. Please punish him.”
The king then declared: “The tiger will be punished with 3 days of silence.”
The donkey jumped with joy and went on his way, content and repeating
“The grass is blue, the grass is blue…”
The tiger asked the lion, “Your Majesty, why have you punished me, after all, the grass is green?”
The lion replied, “You have known and seen that the grass is green.”
The tiger asked, “So why do you punish me?”
The lion replied, “That has nothing to do with the question of whether the grass is blue or green. The punishment is because it is degrading for a brave, intelligent creature like you to waste time arguing with an ass, and on top of that, you came and bothered me with that question just to validate something you already knew was true.”

The biggest waste of time is arguing with the fool and fanatic who doesn’t care about truth or reality, but only the victory of their beliefs and illusions. Never waste time on discussions that make no sense. There are people who, for all the evidence presented to them, do not have the ability to understand. Others who are blinded by ego, hatred and resentment, and the only thing that they want is to be right even if they aren’t.
When ignorance screams, intelligence moves on.

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Our Earth

We all have differing interests as we grow up and one of mine has been, in fact still is, my interest in outer space, our world and how we live. I am most definitely a Star Trek fan and in that series, humans were referred to rather appropriately as ‘carbon-based life-forms’. That is because life on Earth is based on carbon, perhaps because (so I have learned) that each carbon atom can form bonds with up to four other atoms simultaneously. That is a bit technical for me, but it seems that because of that, carbon is well-suited to form the long chains of molecules which then serve as the basis for life as we know it, such as proteins and DNA. In fact, research by some earth scientists at Rice University suggests that virtually all of Earth’s life-giving carbon could have come from a collision about 4.4 billion years ago between this Earth and an embryonic planet similar to Mercury. Science fiction has long imagined alien worlds inhabited by other life, but based on other elements. One example are the rock-eating Horta, a silicon-based life form as featured in the original Star Trek series. Also in that series, Mr Spock has green blood because the oxygen-carrying agent in Vulcan blood includes copper, rather than iron, as is the case in humans. For us here, carbon is the backbone of each and every known biological molecule. Happily we have air to breathe, but most of the time we cannot see it. We know it is a mixture of different gases and in terms of volume, the dry air in our Earth’s atmosphere is about 78.09 percent nitrogen, 20.95 percent oxygen, and 0.93 percent argon. A brew of trace gases accounts for the other 0.03 percent, including the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone. Whilst air is mostly gas, it also holds lots of tiny particles. Some, like dust and pollen, are picked up naturally when the wind blows but the air can also carry particles that cause air pollution, such as the soot, smoke, and other pollutants from car exhausts and power plants. When there are too many particles in the air, it can be difficult for plants and animals to breathe. My parents were made aware of that during the Great Smog in London in 1952, which affected my mother so badly we had to move from there the following year. It was also a contributory factor to my development. We all know from school that we all need to breathe, just as plants and animals do, but Nature keeps this good and healthy balance. As we breathe, we give off carbon dioxide, then plants use this gas, along with sunlight, to make food through the process of photosynthesis and in this way plants give off oxygen. That’s the basic science lesson!

When I was at school, I soon found that sport wasn’t something I enjoyed too much. But others did, in fact a few went on to county championships and I believe some got into playing professional football. Others went on to working in local factories, I know of one who became a teacher and then headmaster at a Peterborough school. We had one lad who was something of a bully and it must have been for show, as he became an actor, though I do not think they were big acting parts. Some of my school colleagues did stay local, they met and married locally and found jobs fairly close by. Then there were others who I have learned went far and wide, up to Scotland, in addition some went to Australia and the U.S.A. I have said about my time with British Telecom (BT) and I started with them in Peterborough, working in the offices adjacent to the main telephone exchange. I learned much about the workings of the company and about the behaviours of my colleagues. Most folk were good, but some were not so good. I had always had an enquiring mind, so when Sir Clive Sinclair brought out a very simple ‘home’ computer, I was very interested in it and bought one. Over the next few years both better as well as more advanced versions came out and I took an interest in the various different computer languages associated with computers. Then, when the opportunity came for me to move away on promotion to Leicester, I took it. That changed my life in so many different ways! Within a few short years I had learned a great deal, I was married and then further changes occurred within BT and I was moved to Nottingham. After a little while my marriage ended, fairly amicably but it was around this time that much bigger, better home computers emerged like the ones we see today. I continued learning quietly, putting the new knowledge to good use. Work moves to Sheffield and Birmingham meant I put these skills to more and more good use, in fact I believe they were instrumental in getting me moved yet again from Birmingham up to Sheffield, utilising many of the computer skills I now had. During all of these changes I noticed the human behaviours of certain people and the effects on others as well as myself. I saw how some tried to demand or force change on others, sadly seeming not to care what effect their ways might have. I saw how some, at the height of major changes, might try to almost ’sneak’ their ideas in. I also saw what a real difference it made when some, like good managers, behaved as benevolent dictators, as they had their own ideas but were ready to accept ideas from others if they were better. Sadly I also saw in some cases where good ideas were either ignored or the person having the idea did not feel they ought to speak up. I am reminded of something told to me many years ago, which is this. Consider a calm, still pond. If you drop a boulder in, it is likely to be seen as a bad thing and not be appreciated, because of all the disruption it creates. Conversely, drop a pebble, stone or a boulder into a rough sea and their effects will not be noticed. That may be why potentially ‘bad’ news is mentioned by some during a time of crisis, in the hope that the bad news might go unnoticed. Drop a stone into the calm, still pond and there its effects are far more likely to be noticed, even liked for its effect. But drop a pebble in and the slight ripple may not even be noticed, as in that circumstance nothing changes. I learned that when things aren’t right, making a gigantic fuss is not a good idea. But staying calm, speaking firmly and positively without getting at all upset is far more likely to achieve the desired result. If not, so long as we have played our part, done our best, that is all we can wish for. What I did have to be taught though was that we should try and work to live, not live to work. We each do our bit, some more than others, some not at all appreciative of what others may do for them but they ought to. I saw such a lovely quote the other day about time and it is this. Time is free, but it is priceless. You cannot own it, but you can use it. You cannot keep it, but you can spend it and once you have lost it, you can never get it back.

I have said previously about singing in the local church choir and at junior school we were introduced to music. Various musical instruments were all shown and demonstrated, in fact as a schoolteacher my Dad taught all the children in class about the recorder. I learned some years later that whilst Dad knew the basics of playing, being a good teacher he very soon found which children had an aptitude for playing so he got them to demonstrate all the finger positions, etc as that kept them occupied! With me having limited mobility in my right hand I could not manage a recorder, however I did learn the basics of a harmonica. It was also at junior school that we would listen to different types of music, I delighted in such lessons. Upon moving to secondary school I continued with music, learning to play a cornet and then getting my own trumpet. It meant that a few of us joined together into a small band, we would play at our school and others in Whittlesey. On leaving school I had proper tuition from a good man who was a retired professional trumpet player formerly employed by the BBC, I also played trumpet in a local brass band for a few years. But by then I was also singing in a couple of mixed-voice choirs and I could sing better than play the trumpet! So music has always been a part of me, whether it be classical, jazz, organ, in fact all sorts. Though country & western doesn’t really give me much enjoyment! Music for me may be loud or soft, fast or slow, it can invoke moods and pique the imagination. For example, one classical piece called ‘Vltava’, by Smetana, this being part of the symphonic poem ‘Má Vlast’ (My Homeland) can do so. In this piece one can imagine a stream, beginning high in the mountains and working its way down, growing in size and strength. It passes over waterfalls, rocks, the stream becoming a river, widening and passing through towns, ultimately widening out and flowing into the sea. I was barely ten years old when I first heard this at school, but I could close my eyes and imagine all this. It was so peaceful and very, very calming. I have found a lovely performance of this work on YouTube which can be seen and heard via the following link: YouTube

Harbour View

Water has such special qualities. Apart from being essential to life, of being made up of hydrogen and oxygen, it is cycled again and again in Nature, falling as rain onto the earth and the sea. Over land, some drops and soaks into the earth, some falls on trees and plants where it is absorbed and used. Some is evaporated whilst some flows together into streams and rivers and ultimately back into the sea. Over the years we have created reservoirs in order to provide water for our use, we have built pumping stations, drained fenlands to provide additional land for growing crops and created barriers to prevent unwanted flooding. Yet Nature still has the capacity to overcome these man-made structures, as in the floods in early 1953 that caused much death and destruction in the Netherlands and the east coast of England. The uses of water continue to be learned through the generations, I know it has helped me a great deal in the past eighteen months and sadly my poor health is partly my own fault for not drinking enough of it! I have corrected that failure and drink water as we all should do. We know that people with injuries have had positive results in regaining muscle strength, it is also used cleverly to teach astronauts to work where there is no air. For me though, as a child I used to be frightened by rain, both seeing and hearing thunderstorms. I was taught what they were and what they did to this wondrous Earth and so I learned to marvel at Nature’s power. I still delight in seeing rainbows, they are so very special to me. From a scientific point of view I know exactly what they are and how they are formed, but they are still a delight to behold. The most amazing changes were visible in, over and under water when I was on my lovely long cruise holiday in 2013. At one point in that journey we were away from port for nine days, though we did see Pitcairn Island and bought gifts from the locals who came out to us in small boats. So the Earth is a watery place. But just how much water exists on, in, and above our planet? About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water. Water also exists in the air as water vapour in rivers and lakes, in ice-caps and in glaciers. It is also in the ground as soil moisture and in aquifers. Whatever and wherever, it is vital to us all, not just for the properties I have mentioned already but for all of its calming and refreshing effects. I live in England and the British Isles are surrounded by water, so as a nation we are used to going to the seaside for holidays, not just for a break, a change of scenery but to be by the sea. The people of much larger countries though cannot easily go to the seaside, so they go to other places in their countries like large lakes. It is water, just the same. It brings us relaxation, it has such a calming effect, it is refreshing. I know I must also mention a further role that water plays for many of us and that is in the form of a blessing. I was baptised within hours of being born as I was not initially expected to live, but a nurse assured my mother to not worry as I would survive. That nurse was correct – I am still here, writing for as long as I am able. In some faiths baptism is a simple blessing, with the sign of the cross made by a priest who has dipped a finger in holy water in a font. With other faiths there is a total immersion in water, described in the bible as the baptismal blessing by John the Baptist. Other faiths have their own beliefs, some have none, but nevertheless we still have and need water.

During research the other day I found a word that was new to me. It often happens! So I researched it. The word was ’sinecure’.
I learned that it referred to a position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit. For example “political sinecures for the supporters of ministers”.
So I wondered – when does a sinecure become insecure?

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