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Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Language of Christmas


Dr. Lester CN Simon

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse
The files were stacked in cabinets with care
In the hope that St. Spencer would soon be there

The electorate were nestled all snug in bed
Visions of a UPP government danced in its head
Serpent on Observer and I in my cap
Had just settled down for a long music rap
When, out on the office lawn there arose such a clatter
I sprang from the house to see what was the matter

Away from the window they flew like a flash
Tore open truck shutters and threw in the stash
The moon like eyes on mountain breasts aglow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below
When, what should catch sight of my wandering, wondering eyes?
Files, files, files and more files!

With a little old driver, so lively and quick
I knew in a moment it must be a snitch
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came
He whistled and shouted by cellular their name

"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"


File chests roasting on an open fire
Jack Spaniards nipping at your nose
High tide currents being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up in police clothes

Everybody knows, a turkey, money, and meat from a pig
Help to make elections right
My dear good people soon to dance a victory jig
Will find it hard to sleep tonight

They know that files are on their way
They are loaded on flat bed trucks for airport runaway
And every mother’s child is going to spy
To see if private files really know how to fly

And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety two
When you throw out files at nights and not days
No Merry Christmas, no Merry Christmas for you


Away in a manger
No crib for a boyke
The big WD 40
Laid down his sweet voice


God rest ye APUA Board men
Let something you dismay
Remember when the public calls
For light, you must obey


Good King Whence-Einstein looked out
On the feast of Senate
When Asot and Browne laid bout
Deep and crisp and palate

Page and monarch forth they went
And Benjamin went together
Through the rude Weston’s lament
To consult the governor

Bring me Nibbs and bring Einstein
Bring me pine logs hither
None of us will see them dine
For being a one-day Senator

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Local Cuban Health Care

Tell Us What Castro Does

Dr. Lester CN Simon

Something odd is happening here. Take a walk through any of the wards at Holberton Hospital and you will see the plight and paradox of our nurses. Local nurses have left Antigua and Barbuda in droves and Cuban nurses have arrived in their stead. Despite the kind assistance from Cuba, there is a chronic shortage of nurses in the state and our nurses are still under extraordinary pressure. The oddity here is that there is something fundamentally “un-Cuban” about the relationship between Antigua and Barbuda and Cuba regarding the attempts to solve our nursing and some other medical problems.

I have never been to Cuba. I have read about medicine in Cuba in medical journals. I have discussed the practice of medicine in Cuba with doctors who were trained in Cuba. Most important, I have observed Cuban medical workers, including nurses, right here in Antigua and Barbuda.

President Castro would agree with the adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. What do you think President Castro would do if Cuban nurses migrated and the nursing service in Cuba started to decline?

I think President Castro would get a piece of paper and ask the nursing tutors to write down all the duties of a typical nurse. He would then ask the nursing tutors to get two separate pieces of paper. On one sheet of paper, the tutors would extract from the master list of duties, all of the duties that must be performed by a trained nurse. On the other piece of paper, they would write all of the duties that can be performed by someone who does not have to be trained as a typical nurse. Castro would then discard the paper with the master list of nursing duties, hold up the other two pieces of paper in both hands and decree, “Out of one nurse, many workers”.

In Holberton Hospital, we have staff nurses, registered nurses, nursing assistants, ward assistants and, at times, student nurses. The staff nurse is in charge of the ward. She must be trained for 3 years to become a registered nurse and then she has to successfully complete a post-basic 1 year course such as midwifery. The nursing assistant and the ward assistant require 18 months and 6 months of training, respectively. The nursing care of a patient is a manifold function including making the bed, bathing the patient and other forms of personal care, giving oral and injectable medication, taking blood and other samples from the patient, dressing wounds, conversing with the patient’s relatives and other visitors, recording vital signs such as pulse, temperature and blood pressure, writing nursing notes about the patient’s condition, supervising and teaching auxiliary staff, planning and implementing nursing care, and making rounds with the doctor, to name a few.

In the absence of sufficient staff, a staff nurse has to perform many of the duties that can be done by a registered nurse, a nursing assistant or a ward assistant. Added to this, a staff nurse finds it difficult to continue to accept the fact that similarly trained government workers, indeed some who have undergone less training and who are doing less work, are paid much more than a staff nurse.

But that is only a tiny part of the story. A similar financial disequilibrium is seen all across the paramedical field, in medical laboratory technology, pharmacy, radiology and physiotherapy. Equal work should not have to beg for equal pay.

Observation shows that some Cuban workers, like some laboratory technologists and some nurses are very good in some aspects of their work to the exclusion of other, interrelated parts. It is clear that many of them were very well trained to suit a particular job function. This is in contrast to our local medical laboratory technologists and nurses who are first trained generally and then secondarily as specialists. Our training in many areas is equivalent to understanding the whole hand and then specialising in a particular finger. In many instances, training in Cuba for some medical workers seems to be the equivalent of mastering the details of a particular finger from the start.

The digital approach in Cuba makes sense to Cubans because all able Cuban citizens must contribute and all must be educated, housed, clothed, fed and be happy. Additionally, it initially ties the workers to their country since their skills are part of a larger, integrated system, without which these workers are not very marketable internationally. In time, the worker can easily augment their expertise and step over from one digit to another to cover the entire hand. By this time, the state has benefited enormously from the erstwhile digitalised workers.

President Castro would tell us that we have to attract more workers into the positions of ward assistant and nursing assistant while we continue to train more nurses. The ward assistant and nursing assistant must be given the opportunity through well designed courses to go on to become nurses. Trainees in other paramedical fields, like laboratory medicine, should be allowed to pursue a similar path. But President Castro knows that all these trainees will only enter the field and accept these opportunities if they are paid the equivalent of what similarly trained and equivalent government workers are paid. President Castro knows that equal work demands equally high or equally low wages.

It is not just what Castro said. Rather, it is what we said to President Castro. Somebody is not telling him the truth. When we do, we will reap the central benefit of the Cuban revolution, which is: applied education for the good life that all of us want to live. The sad part of this medical assistance drama is that like Cuba, we need a revolution in medicine in this country and our path to success is so much easier than Cuba’s. But then again, President Castro would probably tell us that the hardest revolution is the revolution of the mind. Unfortunately, unlike President Castro, history will not absolve us.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Big Big Big

Big Belly and Big Bottom

Dr. Lester CN Simon

Take a midday promenade along Market Street from Newgate to the market gate. Try to classify all the people you see along the way. Ignore the fact that some of us are as ugly as a rusty, bent-up, tin can-cup. Ignore that fact that some of us are as good looking as a tall glass of iced, good water quenched against the salty lips of a beaded face sweltering in this satanic, September sun. Disregard the slender ones that will make uncooked macaroni look fat. Just regard the big, fat “one and them” with big belly and big bottom.

Everyone knows that a big belly is not as healthy as a big bottom. Science has come to the same conclusion. It is good and pleasing when common knowledge and science see eye to eye because science is simply organised common sense based on careful observation.

Excessive fat or obesity increases the chance of getting diabetes, harbouring excess, bad fats in the blood stream and having complications involving the heart, brain and blood vessels, to list a few. However, all body fats are not created equal. Fat that is accumulated inside your belly (the apple shape) is much more dangerous to health than fat accumulated under the skin in the region of your bottom (the pear shape).

Since the location of excess fat is more relevant than the amount of total body fat, scientists have been trying for many years to understand what makes a fat belly so dangerous compared to a fat bottom.

Earlier this year, scientists in Osaka, Japan identified a new substance that is produced in much greater amounts by belly fat than by any other part of the body. They called it visfatin because the word “viscera” is used to describe the organs inside the body including the organs inside the belly. These organs can become surrounded by fat and cause the big belly.

The scientists discovered that the more belly fat you have, the more visfatin the belly fat would produce. The next step was to determine the effects of visfatin. Since visfatin is made by the bad, belly fat, common sense suggests that visfatin would do some bad things to the body. For example, belly fat increases the risk of getting diabetes. Hence it was suspected that visfatin would also increase the risk of getting diabetes by raising the blood sugar.

To the surprise of the scientists, visfatin does the opposite to what was expected. Visfatin actually reduces, not increases, the level of blood sugar. In fact, visfatin acts on blood sugar just like insulin. Why is visfatin, a substance produced by the bad, belly fat, acting in a good manner like insulin? Does this mean that a big belly may not be so bad after all?

Scientists are still investigating the role of visfatin. They have encountered an intriguing paradox. On one hand, visfatin from belly fat acts like insulin by lowering blood sugar. Visfatin also acts on the very belly fat that produces it and so gives rise to more belly fat, which in turn produces more visfatin. On the other hand, the excess belly fat can also make substances other than visfatin. These other substances may cause a rise in blood sugar and increase the risk of getting diabetes, raising bad cholesterol and having complications involving the heart, brain and blood vessels.

It would seem that belly fat is like a two-edged sword. It makes visfatin, which can act like insulin and lower blood sugar, which is good for a diabetic. But belly fat also manufactures other substances that have bad effects including raising the blood sugar, which is bad for a diabetic.

Notwithstanding the newly discovered good effect of belly fat, when the bad effects are taken into account, it is better to avoid having a big belly altogether. It seems that, as we so often discover in life, there is good and bad in all things and we must consider and weigh them all to find the balance point.

The study of fat is very important. There is good fat and bad fat in both the type of fat and the location of fat. Pound for pound, you get more energy from dietary fat than you get from either protein or carbohydrate. Fat produces substances that can help to boost the immune system to fight germs. In fact, some scientists note that visfatin is not a new substance and that it was discovered years ago and called by another name because it was known as a booster to white blood cells, which fight infections.

Fat, in moderation, was once a sign of good health. Some scientists consider fat to be the largest organ of the body and they have discovered that fat is the producer of many hormones that affect many parts of the body. Many of those scrawny, match-stick models on the catwalk, whom some people admire, are plagued with myriad medical problems.

One day, scientists may discover the bad effects of a fat bottom compared to fats in other areas. Fat chance. Until then, continue your walk along Market Street and, with due attention to the vehicular traffic, do not be too modest if you find yourself looking back despite your best effort to walk straight ahead.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Sex Till You Drop


Dr. Lester CN Simon

We are going through a very difficult period in our history. It seems we will wander in the political and social wilderness for many more years until we can meaningfully correct some of the wrongs we have inflicted on ourselves. This wandering seems certain because some of us are hell bent (or heavenly bent) on quick solutions to some very difficult problems, like prostitution.

The members of the clergy who asked the Prime Minister to fix the prostitution problem in Antigua and Barbuda are lazy and short sighted. This is not the first time they have so spoken. This is not the first time a Prime Minister has allowed the police alone to try to fix this illegal problem. This is not the first time prostitutes have been deported after midnight or early morning raids. This is not the first time prostitutes were ejected from known houses of prostitution, only to end up in unknown houses of prostitution.

There is no single, simple solution to end prostitution. Recently, there was much talk about street pastors. Where are they? The pastors must leave their pulpits and go outside and inside the houses of prostitution. Doctors and other members of the health team and social workers must do the same.

Let us try to predict the future of prostitution in Antigua and Barbuda. This is not as difficult as it seems. After the last police raids of the known houses of prostitution, many years ago, many of the prostitutes seamlessly merged with the rest of community. They continued to ply their trade with little or no attention from the medical fraternity. This was very different from the excellent, early work we had started in education about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and condom distribution. Our underlying aim was to try to get the prostitutes and their clients to realise that the practice of prostitution had become a very dangerous and potentially deadly undertaking. At the same time, we had to deal with the reality of prostitution.

In the early days of the HIV program, we learnt a lot about our society from the prostitutes, as some of them were very good listeners to the plights of their customers. We also learnt a lot about our program as we got regular feedback from the prostitutes. In fact, a prostitute chided us about the types of condoms we were distributing and blamed us for the lack of condom usage by their clients. At that time, the language barrier initially prevented proper understanding of her complaint. However, as an indication of how sex is not retarded by language, she gestured wildly and exclaimed in resigned exasperation, “Condom no good; condom no right; Antiguan man: donkey condom…...donkey condom!”

One of the important lessons we learnt was that prostitution, like so many other professions, has a hierarchal system. Some prostitutes will attend to only the crème de la crème client. Others will go with just about anybody; and there are the in-between ones that will buckle on a bad night. The high-class prostitutes do not need the known houses of prostitution. They can sell their wares from their homes by secret, private connections and contacts or you may opt for delivery service.

So what is the future of prostitution in Antigua and Barbuda? Consider the fact that after the last police raid in February 1990, there were very few cellular phones in Antigua and Barbuda. These days, everyone including dog and ….( don’t say it) has a cellular phone.

We will soon see a plethora of escort, call girl (and call boy) prostitution services. In fact, such services already exist. These are for the well-to-do prostitutes and clients. As an article about male prostitution in the Daily Observer noted some time ago, these high-class prostitutes value their high-class clients and they make sure they are tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

What do you think will happen when the common prostitute enters the escort service or simply distributes her cellular phone number and lies down on her back at home, with no medical tests, waiting for her clients to come?

It is most remarkable that the complaints about prostitution from the pastors come at a time when they are concerned about paying taxes. Some people are reminding them that they should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar. Similarly, the pastors, the police, the medics, the social workers and all of us should render unto prostitution the stark realities of prostitution. Get the street pastors working, let the police do their job yes, but get the health team, social workers and others on the job as well. Prostitution is based on demand and supply. There will be little or no success by simply trying to reduce the supply of prostitutes.

It is noteworthy that a common prostitute might be a better judge than a pastor of the way to curtail and control prostitution. It may take a prostitute to tell us that, unlike the sexual act in prostitution, controlling prostitution is not a quick fix; not a one-night stand like the raid carried out by the police. When Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina are no longer round the corner posing, you can bet your life Pastor that the same song and dance will continue selling. In fact, Pastor, ‘the party now start’.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Good Is Better Than The Bad


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Tell me something good. Banish all the bad, wretched news. Pierce my eyes and pang my ears with gleams and dins of joyous excellence. Let us celebrate our unique gifts to the world.

I too was tired of Antigua and Barbuda being known as the land of corruption. I am tired of the soap opera: The Opposition accusing the Government of overpaying on a debt. The Government accusing the Opposition of not paying back when they were in government and of borrowing with no intention to pay. But then, putting aside the veracity of the claims, the principle of taking with no intention to pay, or actually paying back only a miserly sum, sounds so familiar, so colonial.

So it is a most remarkable thing when a fine, noble gentleman from the Commonwealth is invited here to tell us about corruption and the pursuit of integrity. Commonwealth refers to a group of countries in which the common bond between us is that our wealth was stolen or corruptly acquired by the mother country. It is truly our common wealth.

It seems that the tried and proven path to development is to steal from others and then, like a reformed drug addict or a born-again Christian, use the ill begotten gains to build civil society including libraries and other institutions and then proclaim to the developing world that we should pursue integrity. You call yourself first world because you did it first. We in the Commonwealth can parade the streets of Britain and point and sing how we helped build this and that city with rock and coal, cotton and cane, tamarind and tea.

This is how some politicians justify being corrupt and not paying our debts. They went to history class but they scudded the lessons on ethics and they missed the golden text at Sunday School. And yes, corruption it is always for the inheritance of the children: the children of the family or the children of the nations of Britain, Australia or America. Is it just that we have not yet come around to sharing the money as widely as they have? The washing machine is relatively new but money laundering is as ancient as the first drop of rain water.

So tell me something else. List some of the good news. Surely, we must have made some worthwhile contribution to the Arts over the past 20 years. Please do not annoy me with that old, green tee shirt advertising the fourth Antigua Jazz Festival in 1992. This leaves you with only three contributions that are uniquely Antiguan and Barbudan in style but which, like all fine gifts, are universal in meaning.

Tell them about the time you went to the test match between Australia and the West Indies in 1984 BC (Before Chickie). Tell them about the theatre-in-theatre with one competition on the field of play and the other between the Rude Boy (Double Decker) stand and the Old Pavilion. The competing sounds of the conch shell, bugle, trumpet and trombone and the clamour of the crowd torn between their support for either pavilion and their rapt attention to the other game on the field. The spectacle could have dragged a hungry crowd away from a Roman coliseum. Out of this came Chickie and Gravy and our gift of how to really enjoy cricket.

Tell them about Burning Flames, the only band that gets you so hot, you have to answer the call to quench your thirst in the dowsing waters of Country Pond. The band that brought back the tradition that says you have not enjoyed Carnival until you have walked home with your band. Never mind that the band house is not as near as were those of Brute Force or Hells Gate, but a sweet, Stiley Tight journey to Potters. Truly, the road is made to walk on Carnival day.

Someone should remind the panists that one Carnival Steel Band Night, some time in the late sixties, a steel band started the introduction to the test piece in a minor key. When it deftly modulated to the major key for the tune, the audience became primal. It is alleged that patrons who had scaled the thatched ARG wire fence were seen scampering to the gate offering to pay to go back outside and to pay again to come back in! Burning Flames had a tradition to live up to. This was the band that reminded the Caribbean that a combination of exciting rhythm and celebration of culture in songs is the key to musical success just as it was for the music of Africa, Europe and others.

Then tell them about the time in 1983 when you had just returned home after 13 years overseas. It was Carnival time. You watched the television in appalling amazement as King Obstinate sang Children Melee. The stage was chock full of people and props including donkey with cart to boot. At first you thought this was not a proper calypso show. This was a bizarre nonsense, a real melee. You were about to turn off the television when it hit you.

This was dramatic theatre, opera and ballet all in one. A harmonization of the Arts. This was fine classical stuff. It was Leonard Bernstein, the great conductor, who reminded us what the classical in classical music really means. He showed how the form of the Blues is in the classical form of the rhymed couplet and iambic pentameter. Bernstein adapted lines from Shakespeare to the Blues, in one example he called The Macbeth Blues: “I will not be afraid of death and bane. I said, I will not be afraid of death and bane. Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane”. Many of our calypsos are of this classical form as well. So on Carnival Sunday night when we sing, dance and play and root for our Monarch, we are in good, classical company. We are partaking in a universal orgy of the Arts that can spring long eye water and twitch the arthritic hips of a decent soul.

Tell them how we can combine these gifts. When the Commonwealth comes for cricket in 2007, we must fill the streets and theatres with dancers and actors and musicians. Dress them in cricketing whites and colours. Dance the history and portray the calypso songs of the game. Show them that our dancing is not just a jump and wave and a wink-up. And yes, there will be a cameo part for Courtney Browne as the actor dances and drops everything, even his fellow dancers, all in front of the selectors (in blindfolds).

Do not just nibble at our culture like an inexperienced lover preoccupied with rummaging her ear lobes while she lies supine in pregnant anticipation, waiting for you to come to know that all is truly yours. Show the world for 2007 World Cup Cricket that when in 1492, we said, “all is yours” and they took all, it was only an invitation to join us in celebrating life. With our indomitable spirit, today our African and Caribbean culture of showing the world how to celebrate life is still alive and well. Welcome to Antigua and Barbuda, the gem of the Caribbean.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Real McCoy

The figures above are from Pathological Basis of Disease by Robbins and Cotran.

Real Sex!

Dr. Lester CN Simon

The ABC lesson on HIV prevention teaches abstinence, being faithful to one partner and using a condom. We should analyse the relationship between HIV and the host to see how well we know our ABC lesson on HIV. The Art of War by Sun Tzu tells us, “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”

Examination of the way HIV infects the body reveals some remarkable facts. The entire HIV spherical structure is called the virion. The actual virus or the dangerous, infective particle resides inside the virion as a cone-shaped core. It is surrounded by an envelope or coat, which may be considered to be equivalent to a condom. The release of the deadly virus from this protective sheath is afforded by a very intimate relationship between the invading virus and the host cell. (Refer to figures 1 and 2 as you read along).

Any virus, including HIV, will target only a particular type of cell rather than try to infect all the different cells of the body. Viruses are not as promiscuous as human beings. They want to live and they plan to continue being around for a very long time. A virus cannot reproduce by itself or by combining with another virus. It must find a suitable host to survive and proliferate, so it chooses its host wisely.

HIV infects the most important cell type in the body’s immune system. These are cells called T lymphocytes, a special type of white blood cell. This attack involves a process of attraction, fusion and penetration of the host. However, HIV does not simply and single-handedly violate the host. There is mutual interaction involving receptors on the host T cells fusing with HIV structures that are studding the protective sheath of the virus.

Truth to tell, the HIV virus displays a high degree of faithfulness to one partner by only having an intimate relationship with host cells that carry a particular receptor, called CD4. All of the other trillions of cells in the body without this CD4 receptor are ignored. These other cells are in abstention and cannot be infected at all. Unfortunately, these abstainers are part of the same, individual body and they too will be affected eventually by the action of the other cells. Let us take a peep at the wild, sexy titbits and see how HIV discards its protective condom and penetrates the accommodating host.

The studded structures of HIV are called gp120 and gp41 (figures 1 and 2). These names simply reflect their glyco-protein (gp) chemical nature. On the host T cells, there are two types of receptors that receive the HIV studs. One type of host receptor is the CD4 receptor mentioned earlier. Like many receptors, it extends from the inner aspect of the cell, through the cell wall or membrane to the external part of the cell. The other receptor on the host is called a chemokine receptor, CCR5. Chemokines are a family of proteins that primarily act as attractants.

To gain entry into the cells, one of the HIV studs, gp120, binds to the host CD4 receptor. This initial contact does not allow entry of the virus. The real, penetrative sex requires more negotiation, more courtship and more mutual stimulation. As the initial contact and signal transduction continue, they bring about an outstanding change in the HIV stud, gp120. The gp120 stud is now enticed by the attractant receptor on the host cell, CCR5, in addition to its initial contact with the host receptor, CD4.

With this two to one contact between the two receptors on the host and the gp120 stud, the second HIV stud, gp41, is charged into action. It springs outward towards the surface of the host to pierce it. The gp41 is the real stud. It is responsible for fusion with and penetration of the host. When it plunges itself through and beyond the outer confines of the host, the inner, naked virus loses its protective cover and is discharged into the compliant, submissive host. HIV infection begins.

If abstinence and being faithful to one partner fail, and you do not like to use condoms, you and HIV may have quite a lot in common. Considering that HIV does show some degree of cellular faithfulness and that other cells abstain from its sexual advances, your refusal to use a condom may be worse than the action of HIV itself.

Do not succumb to those charming ladies or gentlemen who, when you display a condom, look at you quizzically and say, with all the blessed assurance of a Luciferian angel, “Come, come my dear, just who do you really think I am? Let’s have some real sex.”

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Smoke Signals


Dr. Lester CN Simon

In July 2003, a unique volcanic eruption took place in Montserrat. It is being hailed as a geological finding that has never been documented anywhere before. In a remarkable article in the March 26-April 1, 2005 edition of New Scientist, Christina Reed outlined the scientific path to this discovery with the opening remark, “When lava flows uphill, you know you’re in deep trouble.”

The Soufriere Hill volcano in Montserrat has seen off about 8,000 of the 12,000 inhabitants and invited a number of scientists to work at the Volcano Observatory. Christina Reed reported that in July 2003, the volcano staged its largest eruption since it became active in 1995. As the pyroclastic flow made its way towards the Atlantic Ocean, the scientists crowded the Volcano Observatory. During the 18 hours long drama, one of their volcanic sensors took a direct hit from the pyroclastic flow. A pyroclastic flow comprises ash, blocks of rocks and superheated steam.

After the tsunami a few months ago, we wondered about the possibility of one occurring in the Caribbean. Back in July 2003, as the pyroclastic flow in Montserrat discharged its contents into the Atlantic Ocean, Guadeloupe issued a radio report to say that a small tsunami had smashed 15 fishing boats. Meanwhile, more than 40 animals died on Montserrat in an area considered safe for animals.

The report in New Scientist is an excellent reminder of the power of keen observation, a fundamental requirement of any scientist. After the pyroclastic flow ended and it was safe, volcanologists Marie Edmonds and Richard Herd left their instrument panels in the Observatory and ventured out to get a real view of the damaged area.

According to Christina Reed, the dome at the top of the volcano had entirely collapsed and dumped around 200 million cubic meters of pyroclastic material into the Tar River valley. The Tar River valley is downhill of the volcano. It flows towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Something about the July 2003 volcanic eruption seemed odd. Near the Atlantic coastline, trees facing the ocean had rocks embedded in them only on their coastal side, which is the side away from the volcano. It was as if the pyroclastic down-flow from the volcano had passed the trees with relatively little damage, turned around when it reached the ocean and went back uphill with a greater force!

Force does make water go uphill and it does the same to pyroclastic flow. But what was this force? As the pyroclastic flow “back-back” or turned around, it traveled uphill for about 3.5 kilometers. It reached valleys that farmers had been told were safe for animals. Dozens of animals died.

A volcanologist must spend many hours inside and outside an Observatory recording and analyzing data. However, like all good scientists, volcanologists spends most of the time looking inside their head, thinking, trying to make sense of the reams of data collected.

What had caused the back flow of pyroclastic material? The first and obvious possibility was that the turbulent, downhill pyroclastic flow had hit an object and shot back up the hill. This has been known to happen and the back shot can be sideways or even back up the same hill from whence it came. This happened in 1902 when Mount Pelee erupted on Martinique. The only problem with this explanation was that in Montserrat, there were no such obstacles between the down flow, the Tar River and the Atlantic Ocean, to produce such a turbulent back flow.

The second possibility was that the flat Tar River delta had caused the pyroclastic flow to build and to back up. This was discounted when the volcanologists found large chunks of rapidly cooled volcanic rocks as far as 2 to 3 kilometers away from the parent, pyroclastic down flow. This separation of new, offspring volcanic rocks uphill from the parent rocks of the pyroclastic down flow was too great and wide to result from a mere splash back.

The only explanation the volcanologists were left with was as follows: When the down-flowing pyroclastic material hit the seawater, it caused a secondary eruption, a hydrovolcanic eruption.

The report by Edmonds and Herd of this first-time eruption was accepted for publication in the journal, Geology. They also presented their findings at the Western Pacific Geophysics meeting in Hawaii in 2004. Hydrovolcanic eruptions have been reported before. It was first observed in 1965 when lake water entered a volcano crater in the Philippines. But the discovery in Montserrat marked the first time this was documented in a river delta.

Normally, when a pyroclastic flow meets the sea, there are only small-scale interactions by way of local boiling of sea water and jets of dust and rock fragments (called tephra) shooting up into the air. Never before have such an explosion column and base surge been documented to occur and to thunder back onto the land. A base surge is the backward surge or discharge from the secondary explosions at the coast caused by the deadly mixture of pyroclast and sea water.

There is a lesson to be heeded here. There are many costal volcanoes all over the world. There should be larger buffer zones around coastal volcanoes to avoid the perils of a base surge after a secondary, hydrovolcanic explosion. More than 550,000 people live in the dangerous “red zone” between the sea and Vesuvius, the most dangerous, active volcano, in Italy.

In her excellent article in New Scientist, Christian Reed makes the tipping point that the death of dozens of animals in Montserrat in valleys that were considered safe for them is a forewarning to people worldwide who are living around coastal volcanoes.

Saturday, February 26, 2005



Dr. Lester CN Simon

I wish to thank Sam Roberts for all the steel pan music played on Sessions in Steel on Observer Radio. Like most lovers of pan music, I was enthralled by Phase II Pan Groove for their overwhelming display in Panorama 2005. Their rendition underscored a fundamental element of the steel pan that is worthy of discussion.

Some people do not like steel pan music even though they like many other types of music including jazz and classical music. I think one reason for this is because steel pans have an inherent peculiarity. Despite the fact that steel pans vary in pitch, they all have a similar sonority. This presents a problem in arranging for a steel orchestra. If proper attention is not paid to this fact, the entire steel band can sound like a bundle of noise. This turns off people. The arranger cannot simply adapt the basic approaches that are tried and proven for classical music or jazz big band orchestras. These ensembles have a variety of musical instruments with a variety of musical sonorities.

It is my opinion that one of the best sources for insight into, and inspiration for, arranging for the steel pan is the classical music string quartet. The reason for this is because, similar to the mono-sonority of the steel pans, the string quartet comprises all string instruments. Even though the violin, viola and cello vary in pitch, the sonority is not that different compared to a full orchestra with sections of strings, brass, woodwinds, etc.

The composer or arranger of the string quartet relies heavily on the interplay between the instruments. This is the key. It’s almost like listening to a room full of people with different conversations among different groups and yet, if you listen carefully and try not to concentrate on each spoken word, you can hear the harmony of all the different conversations. This is why I was bowled over by Phase II Pan Groove. Boogsie had the band in that perfect state of harmony in which the different sections were in separate but related conversations with each other, and with the various motivic developments and overall theme.

But there are similar lessons to be learnt from the jazz fusion music of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Groups like Weather Report, Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra emancipated the bass instrument and allowed exciting, operatic interplay among all the instruments. This was similar to what classical composers did with the string quartet and what jazz musicians did in earlier, Swing music in which different instruments were improvising simultaneously. And lest we forget, the drums of Africa mastered this multiple level of conversation eons ago.

Pan arrangers and players must free up the double seconds and the other middle pans. Indeed they must free up all the sections, including the bass. Harmony does not necessarily require strumming all the time. A master like Boogsie can make the different sections interplay and bring out the rich harmony that interplaying allows.

The future of pan music requires more of this freeing up, more of this polyrhythmic, poly-melodic, inter-conversation between the sections. This will require new theoretical knowledge and practical skills such as counterpoint and the deft ability to really play pan rather than simply beat pan.

For those who do not have a natural affinity for pan, we must draw them in by exposing the wonderful science, art and history of pan. Panists must learn to read music and engage more critical discussions about, and analysis of pan music. We must understand that there are only two whole tone scales in Western music: C to C and C sharp to C sharp. The D whole tone scale is just a displacement of the C whole tone scale, etc. Hence a set of pans like the double second pan is tuned so that each pan has one of the two whole tone scales. There are only 3 diminished chords in Western music and hence each pan of a triple set of pans, like the triple guitar pan, carries a single diminished chord. Similarly, there are only four augmented chords. With one augmented chord in each pan, the set of quadraphonic pans was an inevitable development. Since all twelve notes of the chromatic scale can be aligned in a cycle of fifths or fourths, the circular shape of the pan entitles the single tenor pan to this tuning pattern perfectly.

Regarding local pan history, Samuel Simon (“Likkle Man”, the bass man) tells me that his band, North Star (from New Winthropes) was the first steel band recorded by Emory Cook. This seems logical to me because North Star was the resident band at the nearby Bucket of Blood at the Fullers, with whom Emory Cook stayed. But when you have town bands with names like Hells Gate and Brute Force, you have to change the name North Star to something like Big Shell. What else was changed? Likkle Man also said that Hells Gate was so popular, when steel band competition was held at Boys School, the general feeling was that Hells Gate would always win, even if they did not compete!

There is also a claim that North Star was the first steel band to play in church (St. George’s) since the Anglican minister, Reverend Yarbrey (sp.) was more liberal than most and Likkle Man had the singular good fortune of being on the church choir and
co-leader of the steel band. Then again, Likkle Man, the bass man, also claimed that he did not really drink the whole bass drum full of “brebich”! But back to the future.

As we look at the future of pan, the search for the Holy Grail in pan music, as in Caribbean life, will intensify. To hear oneself yes, but to listen to others at the same time so as to behold the consonant beauty of the inviolable, harmonic whole. This is the cardinal or fundamental gift the Boogsian approach of counterpoint and interplay in pan music gives us, especially the youths. How we can live together, separately and yet as one composite whole. As the song made famous in the movie Casablanca says, “The fundamental things apply; as times goes by.” Play it again Sam.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Touch Me If You Think


Dr. Lester CN Simon

It is a generally held view that one of the many and varied causes of aggression, crime and violence is low self-esteem. This is posited as one of the reasons for criminal behaviour among deprived young men in depressed social environments. So scores of counsellors, social workers and teachers have been on the march to assist these unfortunate, sad, young men to raise their levels of self-esteem. Maybe it is time to call in these workers and ask them to report on their findings.

One of the cornerstones of science is the imperative to find the truth and to be able to quote a referenced study or provide empirical evidence for your stated fact. This might mean that in the bright, dazzling light of truth, beautiful theories are knocked down by ugly facts. So who told you that low self-esteem was a causal element in aggression, crime and violence? Where are the data? Where are the studies?

In trying to understand some of the causes of aggression, crime and violence in Antigua and Barbuda, I turned to an article by Roy Baumeister in the April 2001 edition of Scientific American. Baumeister reported that he was unable to find any book or paper that offered a formal statement or empirical evidence to support the “well-known fact” that low self-esteem causes violence. He acknowledged that human behaviour is shaped by various factors. Yet there are some forms of aggression that require the perpetrator to have a high, not low self-esteem.

Baumeister registered the obvious fact that not all people who think highly of themselves are prone to violence. But when inflated, lofty opinion of oneself is questioned, disputed, threatened or undermined, it seems that the whole town had better run for cover.

Old school children should know that high rather that low self-esteem challenged by a threat is more likely to lead to aggression. The school bully takes away your homework, lunch money and your girlfriend (in increasing order of importance). He then beats you up because you are stupid enough to threaten to report him. The village bad boy accosts you with your tray of figs (bananas) that your grandmother has sent you out to sell. You tell him that the figs cost two-pence. He takes away all the figs and gives you two single pence. Then he smashes your tray because you are silly enough to bawl murder and threaten to tell your granny.

Some of us believe that white collar crime is perpetrated by smart people with high self-esteem and that petty, “naked skin” crimes are committed by deprived boys who cannot read or write and hence they must have low self-esteem. Maybe the difference between the two criminals is simply a matter of specific know-how and access. To be any sort of successful criminal, you must have high self-regard and a host of other attributes including good memory and excellent money management skills. To be a successful gang leader you require a practical, street version of a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) that some politicians would barter their souls for.

Based on evidence from studies he conducted, Baumeister concluded that the person with low self-esteem is not prone to aggressive responses. On the other hand, he warns that one should beware of people who regard themselves as superior to others, especially when their beliefs are inflated, weakly grounded in reality or heavily dependent on having others confirm them frequently (Yes, boss; you are the best boss; there is no one like you boss;).

Baumeister noted that conceited self-important individuals turn nasty towards those who puncture their bubbles of self-love. Professional work involving prostitutes, gangs and other groups in Antigua and Barbuda shows that all groups have ranks and files, different classes of members, leaders and rules and regulations. You can be ostracised or killed for “dissing” the highly-esteemed boss. And woe be unto you if it is a posthumous “dissing”.

So what should we be doing to our children to stem the aggression and violence? Simply put: Tell them the truth and do not be afraid to allow them to experience hurt. Baumeister noted with great irony that many parents and teachers are afraid to criticise kids because of the (alleged) serious psychological damage that criticism will inflict. He noted that in some sports, everyone, including the loser, gets a trophy. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! “T’all! T’all!” In my opinion, when you lose, you should bawl like a mongrel, throw yourself down in the gutter, run home and bawl again, fall asleep and wake up and bawl all night till fore-day morning, spend hours, days, weeks and months analysing and understanding why you lost and come back better and stronger for the next match.

In Baumeister’s view, there is nothing wrong with helping students and others to take pride in accomplishments and good deeds. But there are reasons to worry about encouraging people to think too highly of themselves when they have not earned it. Children must be allowed to understand losses and failures proportionate to their ages. Baumeister said that praise should be tied to performance (including improvement) rather than dispensed freely as if everyone had a right to it simply for being oneself.

We all need a favourable self-image. We all want to say like James Brown, “I feel good!” But we forget the next line, “I knew that I would.” You knew that you would because your feeling good, your good sense of self is not false or unwarranted. Maybe, just maybe, we need a national symposium involving all the tribes in this country to determine objectively, measure for measure, the degree of contribution and importance of our heroes. Maybe we need to broaden the national net to include more warriors so we can spread and balance the lineage of our highly esteemed leaders and fighters.

In so doing, we might reach a higher level of national development. When your team loses, there is no aggression based wrongly or even rightly on a erceived “dissing” of those held in lofty esteem. Truly great men and women do not need viragoes and vagabonds to be encouraged to sally and fight unfairly. You just take your bang-off, bawl like a ram goat, and use the time to study how to win fairly and squarely and come back piping hot next time with real fire and steel.

Sunday, February 13, 2005



Dr. Lester CN Simon

Have you ever wondered what really goes on in your body when you are in love? You become obsessed, possessed even. Thoughts, images and impulses occur over and over again and you feel out of control. You are seemingly compelled to undertake irrational acts repeatedly. You regularly call on the phone and you drive by just to see if the house is still there because you know your true love is inside thinking of no one but you. It does not enter your mind that your lover may be totally oblivious of you and your desires. Are you in love or are you a stark, raving mentally ill person?

In 1999, Donatella Marazziti of the University of Pisa in Italy discovered a similarity between people who say they were in love and people with a mental illness called obsessive-compulsion disorder, OCD. A substance called serotonin plays a key role in brain chemistry. It is known to modulate mood, emotion, sleep and appetite, and it has a calming effect. Marazziti found that the level of serotonin was below normal in the in-lovers and in those with the mental disorder, OCD. When love takes over, you have alterations in your mood, you become emotional and you cannot eat or sleep. Are you in love or have you wandered too far from the land of mental normality to a crowded island of madding lovers?

After measuring the substance serotonin, Marazziti went on to look at other substances in those who are in love. An article in the New Scientist of 8 May 2004, outlined the results of research by Marazziti and her team. They measured several substances in 12 men and 12 women who said they had fallen in love within the past six months. They compared the results in these in-lovers with those from 24 other volunteers who were either single or in a stable long-term relationship.

The New Scientist reported that one finding was that both men and women in love had considerable higher levels of a substance called cortisol. Cortisol is known as a stress hormone. The higher levels probably reflect the stressful nature of falling in love whether you are male or female.

Marazziti reported that the most intriguing finding was related to testosterone. Testosterone is widely known as a male sex hormone. Actually, testosterone is found in both males and females but the levels in males below the age of 50 years are much higher than the levels in females below age fifty.

Testosterone is positively linked to aggression and sex drive. Marazziti discovered that men in love had lower levels of testosterone than other men. However, women in love had higher levels of testosterone than women who were not struck by the love bug. She suggested that in regards to testosterone, men in love had become more like women, and women in love had become like men! She thought that this may be nature’s way of eliminating the difference between men and women when they are in the love zone.

Another scientist, Andreas Bartels of University College London pointed out that the changes in testosterone levels could be as a result of sexual activity between those in love. Marazziti discounted that argument as the explanation for the changes in testosterone levels. She noted that in her study those individuals in the control group (not in love) were having sex just as often as those in the in-love group.

Additionally, testosterone levels in men usually rise as sexual activity increases. Hence, reported the New Scientist, if the changes were just the result of sex, the testosterone levels would be expected to increase in men, rather than fall.

It seems that the lowering of testosterone in men-in-love and the raising of testosterone of women-in-love might be an attempt to converge the two levels. This may help lovers overcome their differences (or make them blind to each other’s faults).

Sadly, Marazziti found that the blissful state of romantic love did not last. She re-tested the same subjects one or two years later when they said they were no longer madly in love, although they were still together. The levels of testosterone had returned to normal.

So what should we do to remain in love? Sorry men, but it seems that you have to cut back on your testosterone, your so-called “maleness” and aggression (at least in this circumstance) and allow for less difference between you and your mate. Is there any proof of this? Since older folks are said to be wiser, we should probably study elderly couples who are still living together in loving, in-love, harmony.

In females and males over 50 years of age, the levels of testosterone are lower than in younger females and males. The testosterone gap is smaller. This suggests that for elderly couples in love, they would have to try less hard than younger couples to remain in love, based on the testosterone levels.

There is a contented, in-love, elderly couple somewhere. The man and woman are smiling because the natural testosterone gap has decreased and they are still in love. But within this tendency towards similarity, there are many reasons for the smiles.

The man does not want to actively lower his testosterone any more. He depends on his falling testosterone level for his sex drive. Most times he displays a very low testosterone level by being less aggressive and more agreeable. At other times, they both relish his relatively higher testosterone sexual drive.

He is smiling because he thinks she is unaware of his clever balancing of testosterone levels. She is also smiling because unbeknownst to him, she is well on top of his testosterone balancing ruse. And so they live in blissful, loving compromise, happily ever after.