That Old-Time Evil Ink

11 January 2009

One Hidden Peril of the Printed Word

Clarity, by Jon Wiley, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Dilemmas are easily encountered but rarely mastered – they just hang on in there, teasing with possible solutions just out of reach. They’re usually laden with a little irony, a little out-of-placeness, which suggests that perhaps you’ve somehow taken the wrong path, erred once too often, that the untenable situation is somehow your fault alone. ‘Choose a Path!’ they cry, but you can’t. Trust me, I know. In an age of new media and the electronic page, I live in a house of books. So far, no dilemma, and not entirely surprising for someone who reads, edits and writes for a living. But the printed word sometimes makes me sick. A quandary, yes?

Not, I should add, that I’m a moralist. I’m not perturbed by what I read. It’s just that the words can make me sick. Or, rather, the ink with which they’re printed. Our local newspaper, such that it is, makes me sneeze. I don’t mean a delicate little kerchew. No, no – it’s an Oh-My-God-He’s-Gonna-Die trumpet. Every day. So I’ve taken out a Web subscription and my wife reads the print version, kind of surreptitiously at the end of the lounge room, almost out of sight. We have strange reading habits.

Still no dilemma, but you would have to admit an amount of inconvenience.

So consider this, which is more to the point – I recently missed a book launch due to illness and the author kindly sent me a copy of the volume in the mail. I very much want to read it again (I edited it twice, so nothing of it is really new to me) because it outlines the sort of design philosophy that I think will be useful in running an editing department. This might sound like a long shot, but after you’ve exhausted all the sure things to get to a certain level, a few chances taken never go astray. Yet, and almost inevitably now, the book makes me sneeze. It also makes breathing difficult when I have it open.

What sort of ink do local printers use?

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Meanwhile, Back in Hong Kong . . .

12 August 2008

‘Care’ in a Callous City

One of the fundamental comforts any modern society can offer is the knowledge that emergency medical care will be available when you need it. Although few would ever have cause to consider it in precisely this way, the emergency room is a metaphor for effective governance, a symbol of the social contract at work. Those countries that lack emergency care, and those in which only begging or bribery will obtain it, are clearly deficient in their duty of care towards residents. As are those that discriminate against certain people when they arrive at a hospital, in need and in pain.

“RosesmdCW” is one of those people, a Filipino working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. Last week she left a comment on the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, describing the treatment that she and her sister have experienced in a local emergency room. It pays to remember that Hong Kong is not part of the Third World, has every obligation to offer proper emergency care to all people within its borders, and has an otherwise efficient (if sometimes overwhelmed) hospital system.

I’ll quote her comment here at length, slightly edited to ensure clarity and broken into paragraphs to highlight the main points:

I have been here in Hong Kong for almost 14 years now, and it makes me sad to say that most of us believe that the “LAW” here in Hong Kong is much better than in the Philippines, but yes I do agree that the discrimination here is much worse than I had ever imagined. If you are only a mere servant, even in cases of emergency, people here will just ignore you.

I have experienced going to the emergency section of the government hospital several times with a severe stiff neck pain, and still the staff haven’t attended to me immediately (you have to wait 2 to 3 hours before being attended).

I took my sister to one of the hospitals yesterday as she was bleeding, but she was still sent home and advised by the doctor to wait for an appointment on November 21, 2008. My question here is: What does “emergency” mean? Does emergency mean that you should be drawing your last breath to be considered?

I really can’t understand the hospital rules here … I saw people waiting at the emergency section with just slight problems. To make matters worse for my sister, she was immediately terminated by her employers when they knew she was going to attend Emergency! They had objected to her going to see the doctor and made her continue work even though she was in pain and bleeding.

I wish the government would really act on this, and not wait until the reputation of Hong Kong deteriorates further.

Beyond how the two women were treated at the hospital lies a truly disturbing reaction from the sister’s employer. I’ve communicated with “RosesmdCW” before and have no doubt that what she has written is an accurate description of events. If there is a social contract in Hong Kong, if social decency is at all valued, then neither consideration extends to domestic helpers.


When it Hurts to Stay Awake

7 July 2008

Further Thoughts on Sleep and Pain

The two most fundamental warning signals we encounter in our many days, through the long nights of our lives, are tiredness and pain. They remind us of our limits and encourage us to change our ways. Individually they’re manageable, at least in small doses. But together they can spiral us down into the depths of illness. When sleep deprivation and the infliction of pain are combined they have a single name – torture. This might seem a little melodramatic, but think about it from an everyday perspective. You work a long day, sweating at physical labour. At night you ache, you hurt, and rest returns you to something approaching normality the next day. But what if you can’t sleep properly?

More pointedly, what if your job doesn’t allow you to sleep properly?

In recent posts I’ve written about sleep and pain separately, but I’ve been thinking about their combined effect increasingly often. The disappearance and death of Vicky Flores here in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong has had a lot to do with that. For those who haven’t read my previous posts on Vicky, she was a domestic helper who fled her employer’s house for no established reason and drowned later that night. The police have commented that she was very stressed, but friends have also mentioned that she was suffering from various aches and pains before she died. Domestic helpers are often expected to work extremely long hours in Hong Kong, and Vicky died with mild pain killers still in her system, so I began to wonder whether there could be a link.

This line of inquiry certainly won’t solve the mystery of Vicky’s disappearance, but it could well illuminate one of the darker corners in the lives of lowly paid contract workers around the world.

Two recent studies offer a glimpse into the socio-economics of pain, fatigue and how they combine. The first, covered briefly in the July print edition of Scientific American, reports a survey of the extent to which Americans feel pain in their daily lives. A majority of the interviewees who were feeling pain were also dissatisfied with life. Hardly a surprise there – it’s what the Americans call a ‘no-brainer’. But hold that thought for the moment. Another two statistics that add something more specific to the scenario are the percentages of those in pain who were earning more than US$100,000 per year and less than US$30,000 per year.

The corresponding figures were 22.9% and 34.2%. In other words, and obviously leaving aside 42.9% of sufferers between these two income thresholds, there is an almost 50% increase when we move from people in pain who are well off to those in pain who are just scraping to get by. Add in dissatisfaction with life and you get hint of what low income, and more often than not physical labour, can do. But we still haven’t touched on sleep, and it turns out that interrupted sleep could well lower pain thresholds and make people suffer more. This in itself is worrisome, but the effect is particularly noticeable in women, especially those who need to wake frequently, like new mothers and – you guessed it – lowly paid domestic helpers.

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Sleep, Damn It!

21 June 2008

On the Perils of Work-Related Fatigue

Tired eyes, by lianneviau, with Creative Commons licenceSpending time around someone who constantly lacks sleep is not a pleasant experience. My family could tell a few tales about me recently – irritability, weight gain, poor decision making and an immune system that seems to invite every small illness that’s floating around. This week has been particularly difficult for them, with work dragging me ever further away from the fabled land of Nod. But at least I have time to rest and reflect on the weekend, time to change my ways. What about people don’t?

As I’ve mentioned before, there are many tens of thousands of migrant workers here in Hong Kong who work around 18 hours a day, 6 days a week. Or, to put it another way, they sleep 6 hours or less a night. How does that affect their work and their health? And what are the long-term consequences of contract-inspired sleep loss? First, allow me to set the scene with a story I know well.

Insomnia, by EasyPickle, with Creative Commons licenceMy sister-in-law is the domestic helper to a wealthy family who quite frankly don’t need to be waited on hand and foot. But such is their acquired dependence on children woken, breakfast made and late-night snacks prepared by someone else that she rarely sleeps before midnight and rises by six. On Sunday she visits my family and me, sleeping a few hours until she leaves at 6 pm to beat a draconian curfew. At dinner she’s back at work, and won’t rest again until late at night. Each week her fatigue combined with hard work becomes a little more difficult to endure. But ask if she’s coping and she’ll tell you she is.

Clearly the need to sleep during the day on Sunday suggests she’s wrong. Read the rest of this entry »


Pain Stops Play

10 June 2008

On Dizziness and Dualism

Spiral Vertigo, by Sifter, with Creative Commons licenceVertigo is a curious phenomenon – something like the split-second at which stability becomes movement, repeated once, twice and again, always spinning around. In its mild state the condition is relatively common, but given that it’s rarely spoken about there must be quite a few silently worried people walking one cautious step at a time. The very realisation that the brain is misinterpreting its physical surrounds is not a pleasant experience. An effect for which we might pay substantial amounts of money on a Friday night – and alcohol is seldom more than vertigo in a bottle – is not welcome when it arrives unannounced, uninvited. So the feeling that things are slipping away brings with it anxiety, which increases the sense that the brain has taken on a life of its own.

But, of course, the brain is not independent of the thinker. Vertigo seems to highlight the distinction between the mind – our conscious thoughts, our perceptions – and the brain, the organ that makes all thought possible. To perceive uncontrollable movement when you know that nothing is happening suggests a clear division between the physical processes of the brain and the purely mental way in which those processes are understood. Yet even that description highlights how the very popular notion of a mind-brain dualism fails to notice the brain generating the thoughts that the ethereal mind uses to doubt its own dependence on the brain.

So much for a philosophical cure.

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